There are times as a sports fan where you’d rather be wrong and entertained than correct and able to pound your chest and say, “yep, freakin’ told you so, there was no way they were going to lose.”
One of the better cases in point is with the 2016 Alabama football squad, as they square off against Clemson tonight in a rematch of last season’s national title game.
Both squads are stacked with guys who will play on Sundays, get concussed on Sundays, be fined by Roger Goodell for various transgressions, make Pro Bowl teams, drink of Super Bowl glory: all of the modern gladiator trappings that come with a career in the NFL. But for now, no one is sitting out of this particular college football postseason game – and watch, that is going to become a trend – because this is one of the two that really matter.
Clemson pasted Ohio State 31-0 to get here, and under normal circumstances, expectations would suggest that the Tigers have just as strong a chance as winning the title as ‘Bama. Hell, even some of the Crimson Tide players think they might be underdogs.
The problem is, this edition of the Tide may be the best team in the history of college football. And with a freshman quarterback in Jalen Hurts at that.
It felt shocking when Washington scored first against Alabama in the Peach Bowl on New Year’s Eve. There was a sense of, shit, maybe we’re going to have an actual game here. No dice; Washington didn’t score again, ‘Bama coasted 24 to 7.
The thinking for any great team is that you have this moment in your season when your mettle is tested, your mettle is proven and then your mettle redoubles.
Sometimes it’s a lesser team scaring the crap out of you. There’s sloppy play, you’re down, you’ve put the ball on the ground a half dozen times, but then skill and will assert themselves, a victory is secured and next week’s opponent gets drilled, now that natural order is restored.
But if you watched the Tide this year, you know that no one really got a sniff. And this is in the SEC, aka, the NFL’s unofficial minor league system. Ole Miss, who tends to play the role of Triceratops to ‘Bama’s T-Rex, fell 48-43 early in the year, and LSU’s defense kept them around to lose by a semi-respectable 10-0, but everyone else?
Everyone else got smoked.
Texas A&M, who was sixth in the country when they played Alabama, got pasted 33-14. Arkansas at number 16 got spanked to to the tune of 49-30, number nine Tennessee was run through the gut 49-10.
These beatings were sufficiently intense that they became psychological in nature, with both Arkansas and Tennessee unraveling at an ever quicker pace for the rest of the campaign. They became mentally soft football teams doubling as examples of team-wide on-field PTSD.
But then there was number 15 Florida at the end of the year. A pretty tough team, Florida. Not a team to fold and melt. But the Tide washed out even the glimmer of competitiveness on the Gators front, 54-16.
Auburn, which hates all things ‘Bama as much as ‘Bama hates all things Auburn, were dispatched 30-12 in the Iron Bowl. They were ranked #16, and had all of that spleen for motivation, too.
Some teams are so dominant that you become incredulous that they could lose, after you’ve watched them enough. Which makes it all the more wonderful when they lose, provided, of course, they’re not your team.
A great record, even a historic one, doesn’t mean that you can’t see an upset coming. The 2007 Patriots, for instance, were absolutely ripe to be knocked on their collective ass. Conversely, in the mid-eighties, it seemed like no one could beat the Edmonton Oilers, and then the Calgary Flames took them out in the division round the year when Wayne Gretzky scored 215 points.
And it’s not like Clemson didn’t gave ‘Bama everything they could contend with last year, in a 45-40 game that could well have had a different outcome if it were five minutes longer.
But to be this dominant, in that conference, and bust out the Southern version of a shillelagh for the latest shellacking each week, means that if the Tide cap this year off with another drubbing, you have to put them near the top of the best college football teams there have ever been. Much as that might pain a non-Tide fan who can’t stand Nick Saban and (correctly) regards him as the Bill Belichick of college football.
This would be Saban’s fifth championship with the Tide and sixth overall. That would match Bear Bryant, one of those names so potent in sports hagiography that it is like Vince Lombardi, John Wooden, Connie Mack – you know, the untouchables in the firmament, names that feel less like those belonging to people and more to concepts.
If you go through the roster of college football’s best teams, you’ll see similarly dominant, doozies of seasons from the likes of Oklahoma in 1974, Nebraska in 1995, USC in 1972. But the modern SEC is a tipping point.
For as wonderful as football is on TV, one quality that tends not to translate is speed. But when you watch an SEC game, you see it, and then when you watch ‘Bama play, you see more of it, and it’s obvious that you’re watching NFL speed at the college level. This is a team of speed demons outpacing a league engineered as pure college football speed.
Maybe it will be a distraction that offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin – he of the multitude of chances – has left Saban’s staff on account of taking the head coaching job at Florida Atlantic University, sounding off about the “ass chewings” he received from his now former boss on the way out.
But the feeling here is nope, not gonna matter, but what a thrill it would be to be wrong.
That’s the thing about a potential coronation game like this, where there’s more at stake than a national title. They don’t happen that much, but the real kicker, the real pleasing paradox, is that when it comes to sports, the dissembling of that coronation has more historical value than a team taking its place in the sports heavens. The 2007 Giants make for a far better story than the 2007 Patriots would have. That’s the better history.
So either way, whether it’s the outcome ‘Bama fans anticipate or a Clemson upset, tonight’s game will be special.