Well, for you college football fans, this is that time of the year that we all love the most. My Crimson Tide sits atop the BCS poll as the number one ranked team in college football. Who would have believed it in August? They were totally unranked. This was "rebuilding" season number two. The faithful hoped for a great team next year and a potential champion in year four of the Nick Saban era. So, whatever happens now this has already been an amazing season.
As die hard fans know Alabama plays LSU at Tiger Stadium this Saturday (2:30 p.m. CST, CBS-TV). Guess where I will be? No, not in Louisiana, though I would wish. Bama is a 3+ point favorite but Tiger Stadium will be loud, hostile and challenging to say the least. Not only can the defending national champions knock Alabama out of the top spot but they can beat their former coach, Nick Saban.They would love nothing more. LSU will come to play and Les Miles is a "motivator" who loves to win games when his team is expected to lose to a higher ranked opponent. (This goes back to him beating Oklahoma when he was at Oklahoma State and no one gave his teams a chance.)
This Alabama team is hard to figure right now. How good are they? I don't know yet. This week is a real test but the bigger one will come in the SEC Championship game in Atlanta in December if they get by LSU. There the opponent is likely to be high-powered Florida. (They still play Mississippi State and Auburn, who both have winning streaks on us, two and six games respectively.) As a fan I did not wish for the number one ranking this early. I wanted to reach the top spot in December so my team could play in the BCS Championship game. Now a late season loss will ruin that chance.
Truthfully, I would be a happy fan if Alabama beats Auburn and State and finishes 11-1 and plays for the SEC title. Obviously I am hoping for more but this is an overachieving team already. They have no great "weapons" on offense and they do not blow anyone away. They sometimes play down to lesser teams and then excel on the road in the hardest places to perform. All that matters, at this point, is winning. How much you win by is irrelevant to the goal. Saban doesn't run up scores anyway and never has, another commendable quality. His attitude is to simply win and let things take care of themselves.
What intrigues me about this 2008 team is that it is a team in the best sense of the word. It is a team that reflects the personality and character of their high-paid coach. After a recent game Saban said, "There were teams we had at LSU where we had such good skill guys that there were times that we didn't play so good but those guys made so many plays." Saban went on to call this Alabama team a "blue collar team." The physical offensive line play, three interchangeable running backs who are good but not great, and a mistake-free senior quarterback who has matured are the best they have on offense. The two best receivers are two true freshmen. They average 32.3 points a game, enough to win so far. But the margin of error on offense is very small. They cannot make huge turnover mistakes and still win. (They also cannot afford penalties and they have had close to the fewest in the country this year.)
Insiders, like Coach Saban, talk about "big plays" and "explosive plays" on offense. A big play is a run of 13+ yards or a pass of 17+ yards. An explosive play is 16+ yards on the run and 21+ on the pass. Only twice has Alabama reached Saban's goal of seven big plays and nine explosive plays! Both times the opposition was weak. They average only 4.4 big plays and 6.1 explosive plays. This is less than any of the six teams ranked behind them. And this is a major reason why most believe they cannot run the table and win the top spot at the end of the season. Compared to explosive teams Alabama looks most unimpressive.
So this Alabama team is not producing the "big bangs" that win big games. This is why so many college insiders feel they will lose one or more games before the season is over. Could be true but then even Saban
is playing this is close to the vest and teaching these guys to play one game, and one play, at a time. I have watched dozens of interviews with Saban and his veteran players. (He allows no freshmen to talk to the media for good reason.) They talk about playing each single play very hard and winning against your opponent on every down. They love to play one-on-one and just get in your face and challenge you to stop them or beat them on defense. They are disciplined and play under control, just like their famous coach. Having watched Saban coach for years now I have always felt he was as good as anyone in the business. Now having seen him at Alabama I have no more doubts at all.
But there are several "wild cards" in the mix with this over achieving team. First, they just run the ball, and then pass it now and then. But they hold on to it and win. Their line is huge, quick, mature and good. The real key for Alabama has been on defense. Many feel they have the best overall team defense in the land. Having watched them play nine games I agree. There defense allows only 2.7 big plays and 3.7 explosive plays. With an offense that moves the ball and holds on to it this is a great way to keep the defense fresh and ready. (Since 44% of Bama's big and explosive plays have come from three freshmen. The future is bright!) Alabama effectively controls the ball and plays great man on man skill defense. And they have a man lining up on the offensive center who is so huge, and quick, that the middle of the field is stuffed most of the game. (Terrence Cody, at 365 lbs., and known as Mount Cody!)
For the naysayers I remind you that when Alabama won its last national title in 1992, under Gene Stallings, their offense was far weaker than this one. But then their defense was probably a bit better. My point: You can win with a strong defense. I still believe it is the foundation for winning and so does Saban who was a defensive player and coach.
So I am not counting on winning it all this year if the truth be known. But I would not count these guys out just yet. The test will come if they get behind by several touchdowns and have to fight back. I doubt they can do it. But then they have led in every game they've played, only trailing by 3 points for five minutes all season long. If they methodically move the ball and get a lead then they hold it. So if you like this kind of "team" football, without a superstar in the bunch you will enjoy watching them play this week, unless of course your team is chasing them or you love LSU, Auburn, Tennessee, etc.
Did I tell you? Do not call me this Saturday. I will be very, very busy and really into an event from 2:30 p.m. until around 6 p.m. Rollllllll Tide!