Wednesday, September 18, 2013

week 2 thoughts: not today

"There is only one god, and his name is Death. And there is only one thing we say to Death: Not today."*
* I spent most of my summer every reading "A Song of Ice and Fire." It's gonna come up periodically. I apologize in advance.

The bulk of a sports fan's life is learning how to deal with losing.

It's true. For as much as talking heads — most of them former coaches — blather on about "the team that makes the least mistakes" or whatever, more games are lost than won. This is particularly true in football — I've been a fan of Alabama football since I was in third grade (1989), and I can remember just about every important game the team has played in that time period.
The difference between winning and losing, then, has always been the mistakes.
In a way, this summarizes exactly what "Sabanball" really is (and, conversely, why so many people hate it). It's an effort to take all the mistakes — all the "losing plays" — out of the game. What's left is a cold, efficient machine that grinds up whatever is in its path.

For a Bama fan who grew up reading about the old Bryant teams — while watching Mike Dubose and Mike Shula teams in front of him — that style has meant a dominance not seen in college football since the 1970s. It's been an odd thing, really — this is a team that has seen more success in the past five years than some fan bases will see in their lifetimes.
But there is still the matter of defending that position. And when it came down to it, revenge vs. Texas A&M wasn't as important to me as simply not losing.

Which, of course, is what followed.
No matter what you think of Alabama, the idea of going on the road against a team as good as the Aggies, immediately going down 14 points and ultimately giving up over 600 yards of total offense seems like a recipe for disaster, one of those days when the home fans tear down the goalposts and make home videos to treasure for a lifetime.
But not Saturday, and not against this Alabama team.
The difference in the game, it turned out, were Johnny Manziel's two interceptions. One of them derailed an almost certain touchdown; the other turned into 7 for Alabama in the opposite direction.
The final? 49-42, in favor of the visitors.
More games are lost than won.

There are, obviously, miles to travel in the 2013 season. No law says Alabama is guaranteed a championship, even if the toughest games left on the schedule — Ole Miss, LSU — are at home (and winnable). But it gives me pride to see this team rage against the dying of light. It should make us all proud.

Some other thoughts ...
• We traveled to Texas over the weekend, visiting friends who live in Killeen, and visited campus on Saturday (didn't make it into the stadium, though — too expensive and way too hot). I'd say College Station is a slightly nicer version of Mississippi State (so, Troy, basically). What made up for it were the people, who could not have been more courteous to their visitors. We visited one tailgate — a friend of a friend, kinda — and the matriarch there gave us all "Texas Aggie hugs" upon arrival. "Make sure y'all tell everybody how nice we are," she said. Hopefully this qualifies.
• No more shade to throw at The Magnificent Johnny Manziel*. Maybe he's a spoiled brat or a hustler, but on Saturday he did things that simply boggled the mind. And while we're here, can we encourage Mike Evans to go pro? Good Lord.
* Probably the most objectively stupid argument I've heard thus far against Manziel for a second Heisman is the fact that A&M lost the game. The guy accounted for yard totals that defy the laws of nature, and he was betrayed by a defense that simply couldn't hold up against the top-ranked team in America. And while we're here, he wouldn't have won the Heisman last year if his defense hadn't stepped up to stop Alabama on its final drive. This is a whole other entry at some point.

• Equally unshaded is Alabama's offensive line, which went from suspect to dominant in a matter of two weeks. Alabama's tailback depth also suddenly looks daunting as well — Jalston Fowler looked great, and 2012's Human Victory Cigar, Kenyan Drake, may be faster than anyone. Of course, T.J. Yeldon remains the bell cow, his key fumble notwithstanding. Just nice to have options.
• On that note, Alabama used some unusual formations to attack the Aggies on the ground, occasionally even lining up five people — a tight end and two H-backs — tight to one side of the formation. The effects were obvious. I'm going to assume we didn't use any of this stuff in Week 1 because we didn't need it.
• Whatever can be said about the defense's performance Saturday has already been said. Allow me to point out, though, that we played most of Saturday without Deion Belue and still haven't seen Geno Smith since his DUI arrest. Oh, and one other thing ...
• We almost lost Haha Clinton-Dix in the second quarter to football's newest reactionary rule: penalizing "targeting," or blows to the head against "defenseless players," as defined by the rules. It's tough to blame the official, who's seeing a play happen in front of him at 100 miles per hour, taking into account the directive he's receiving from upstairs — "Protect the receiver's head" — and hearing whoops from the A&M bench, begging for a flag.
Instead, let's just lay out the problem with the entire initiative: It's an effort by the people who govern football — a violent sport in which highly trained young men crash into one another at high rates of speed — to make the game "safe." Football is not "safe," by nature. Attempts to make it safe by putting your referees on high alert only penalizes a player for doing his job.
Moreover, the NCAA has already acknowledged how dumb the rule is by taking away virtually all of its teeth. In essence, the replay booth can now say, "We have looked at the play and determined no foul occurred, so the player who was erroneously flagged gets to stay in the game. But we're not overturning the penalty itself for some reason, because ... you know, whatever." It's equivalent of an unfunded mandate to the guys in the stripes.
• I don't have a good ending for this entry. Honestly, by game's end, watching from Killeen, we were all exhausted, relieved and maybe a little drunk.
It was pretty great.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

week 1 thoughts: something to say

Editor's note: So, remember when I said I was probably going to post here only with sporadic frequency? Yeah, about that. Turns out there's a lot going on these days, that's going to keep me from my slavish devotion to the blog (not shutting down ... just saying). I still am frequent on Twitter, as most of you already know, and a good bit of what I used to do here I can now do there. We'll just keep our relationship here week to week, OK? OK.

So, in my unofficial return to blogging, I mentioned that one of the reasons I took a step back from this particular gig is that I sort of ran out of things to say. Anyone who has ever attempted to write for a living knows that fear living inside him: A blank page with nothing to fill it.
There were a number of reasons for that, but one of the biggest was Alabama football itself, and the Saban machine. Alabama football, as most of you know, is one of the first loves I ever had in my life, and as such I tend to approach everything related to the program with a sense of dread and trepidation. It's just that this recent run — 61-5 after last Saturday's comfortable slugfest vs. Va. Tech — has taken away a lot of room for skepticism.
There are any number of ways to quantify this, but here's one: Since the 2008 whipping of Clemson in Atlanta, Alabama has entered a game as an underdog ... I don't know, 3 times? Four? When was the last time — the BCS MNCG vs. LSU? And we all remember how that turned out.
This status as the king of college football — "where we belong," in the parlance of the Bama Nation — is at once thrilling and problematic. It's more fun to play the scrappy underdog, right? It's why we always complain we're not getting enough respect, even though we've been ranked in the top 5 of every major college football poll for 34 consecutive weeks.

Saturday afternoon in the Georgia Dome, then, was a recipe in which Alabama could only disappoint. Admittedly, it was a difficult watch, even for the most ardent fan (my dad texted me during the third quarter to declare it "boring"). Alabama was limited to a paltry 3.3 yards per play, and barely over 200 yards total. T.J. Yeldon finished with 75 yards rushing, and A.J. McCarron took four sacks (and was moving his feet all night, even when he managed to throw the ball away). For most of the night the team looked like less the big bad behemoths of the sport, and more like a flawed team struggling to find its identity.
And yet, the final score was 35-10. In our favor.
Look, nobody's happy with Saturday's effort. It's not good enough to win a division championship, let alone a conference or a national title (and really, at this point anything less would be disappointing). Still, let us assume the following, for the sake of being positive (a rarity for me):
• Alabama will improve, and has the talent to play much better. Saturday night was a C-, but Bama's C- is still better than most teams in the country.
• Va. Tech maybe is better than we thought (note: Trevor Matich apparently told the Finebaum audience that VT's defense is the best we will see all season, including LSU ... probably not true, but there it is). And they'd been preparing to shock the universe since January.
• Alabama was playing left-handed — that is, without its full game plan — and will install its full game plan before next Saturday in Texas.
(Note: Does anyone feel better yet?)

Some other thoughts ...
• Lost in the furor over the offense's putrid performance was the defense, which was gashed for exactly one big play, and crippled Va. Tech after halftime. VT's offensive output in the second half: punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt. They crossed the 50-yard line exactly once, after a punt return in the fourth quarter, then immediately went backwards three yards ... and punted. It's a pretty workmanlike performance from a defense that defines itself by workmanlike performances.
• For all the hype about Alabama's backfield, right now we have exactly one tailback that looks competent. God help us if something happens to T.J. Yeldon.

• This may have been the year when the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic finally went over the edge.  Aside from the constant name-dropping and the endless promotions, Chick-fil-A also decided this was the year that the winner of the game would receive a trophy for its efforts: The Old Leather Helmet*. This was probably a better idea in production meetings; unfortunately, not only had most of the fans left by the time the trophy was presented, but Alabama's players and coaches were so disgusted by their own effort, they were in kind of a hurry to get to the locker room so they could go home.
Instead, everyone lingered on the field, to celebrate ... what, exactly? Winning the opener in lackluster fashion? Do we even have room for that trophy?
(On the bright side, it led to a hilarious moment in which offensive guard Anthony Steen was holding the trophy, prompting one fan near me to suggest they told him to hold "cause he hasn't s--- else all night").
* According to its website, Chick-fil-A has presented this trophy to the winner of its annual game every year since 2008. I have no memory of them doing this in 2009, but I am also old and losing my marbles at a remarkably rapid pace.

• So what was the problem with the offensive line Saturday? I confess it was difficult to tell from my seat in Section 331 — a few times, it seemed Va. Tech simply stacked the line of scrimmage, to the point that the defenders outnumbered our blockers. At other times it seemed like we were just whipped, man for man. Interestingly, our best success seemed to come on counter actions and sweeps; with the defense flowing so hard to the ball, breaking the line of scrimmage meant big plays.
• I am tempted to say, "Without those kick returns, we're not nearly as comfortable at the end." Then again, kicking is 1/3 of the game, right? No reason to apologize there.

In any case, the season is still very young, and hopefully there will be much more to say.