AUSTIN — For more than a decade, as Nick Saban has built one of the defining dynasties in the sport’s history, Alabama has carried an aura of solid championship.
As predictable as its classic uniforms and Saban’s side growl, Alabama’s title contention has been as reliable as a year. Sure, there have been misses and surprises, but Tide has made it to seven of the eight College Football Qualifiers and won six of the past 13 national titles.
Alabama’s place in the sport’s championship conversation has simply been accepted as part of the sport’s soundtrack. It will remain there on Saturday after the No. 1 Crimson Tide burst through a sloppy and uncharacteristic win at unranked Texas, 20-19.
Any idea of removing Alabama from the national headlines picture remains preposterous, as cyberspace is filled with terabytes of early Alabama obituaries. But simply getting them into the College Rugby Round based on past performance can also seem daunting, as this helpless performance detracts from the aura of certainty that often surrounds Alabama.
“Aware that we had to walk out there and be blown away,” said Texas coach Steve Sarkisian. “I don’t care about perception.”
The same can be said for the perception of a Big Three in college football, which is Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State and then others.
The Alabama team exited the Royal Darrell K Stadium with obvious holes. The biggest proved to be self-inflicted wounds and a lack of discipline, as Alabama committed 15 penalties in the 100 yards, the most in Saban’s tenure.
But perhaps it’s more obvious where Alabama looks dead, as their receptive corps is below average in the SEC, their corners will make happy offenses salivate and attack lines of they don’t show any indication that it is likely to win.
Of the Bryce Young27 completed times, only 13 reached the hands of the general recipient. In an era when pitching became paramount to winning a national championship, Alabama had a quarterback with dynamic arms and a lack of dynamic receivers. That leaves Young dancing, scrambling and, in the game’s defining play, magically avoiding beheadings to rally victory.
Sarkisian compared him to Houdini, but Young really needed more magic from his players. There was a marked lack of speed that came before training on Saturday.
“All the corners and receivers there are in the same boat,” an NFL scout said. “They’ve played but never really were ‘boys’. There needs to be someone to support and make plays.”
“I don’t see a lot of pace,” a second NFL scout added.
Alabama will receive a similar share to Texas for rat poison, the kind of cynicism and negativity that Saban will no doubt use to shape and mold his team.
But as they’d expect, it’s not all that crazy to pick Georgia as the clear favorite in the SEC and Alabama risks losing many regular games during the season. If you lack skill and speed on the outside of either ball, it is difficult to compete in modern college football.
“This is like playing an SEC game on the road,” Saban said after the game. “They’d be in the SEC. If they were in the SEC now, they’d probably be in the top half of the league.”
And that might be the most cursed statement ever. Alabama will feature the full tournament schedule including home games against Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Auburn, along with road trips to Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU. There’s a long runway for Alabama to be better, it’s a Saban specialty. And college football is a strange game where perception is often disrupted, as Texas A&M found out about its loss to Appalachian State, 17-14, on Saturday.
At a minimum for Alabama, there are plenty of speed bumps ahead with flaws exposed today.
How much credit goes to Texas for Alabama that looks very unlike Alabama? That is a good question. The Longhorns deserve a lot of credit for the way they physically play, which is perhaps the biggest surprise of the game. That’s arguably Alabama’s biggest advantage. And there’s a lot of credit for rocking the Crimson Tide, who never seems to get comfortable.
“I’d like to think we made some of those risks as well,” Sarkisian said.
How bad are the penalties?
There are six false or misleading starting points, three of which end with an asterisk Will Anderson Jr. and two by handling the right JC Latham. There was a pair of penalties for covering the face, and a penalty that didn’t seem to have been called out could have turned the game around.
There was an obvious personal foul on Anderson, an illegal save in the back and a pair Kool-Aid McKinstry overcome interference.
Perhaps Alabama’s most important game of the day came from the penalty spot. Linebacker Dallas Turner flagged because a passerby call was rudely sent Quinn Ewers out of the game with what Sarkisian later called a collarbone sprain. (Ewers spins the ball brilliantly by throwing the first 134 yards, sending the imaginations of Texas fans reeling with delight.)
There’s a coda for this game from the last time these shows met during the 2010 national title game, where Colt McCoy was injured. Depending on the show you follow, it’s a Amazing ‘What If’ or a decades-old vexing topic.
The legacy of this game will be long defined from now on. But in the short term, Alabama’s path towards where they’ve earned themselves at the top of the sport looks more perilous than usual.