With a heartbreaking 31-20 loss in Atlanta, the dream season is finally over. Coming into this season, most people were expecting roughly an 8-4 campaign and an appearance in the Peach Bowl, but out of nowhere this team ran off twelve straight wins, captured the unanimous number one ranking, ended all of the streaks, contributed to coaches being fired left and right, and came literally within minutes of a berth in the BCS national championship game. The dream season is indeed over, but what a ride it was.
First and foremost, you've got to give credit to the Florida Gators. Bottom line, they are that good. Or perhaps I should say that great. The way they dominated opponents down the stretch in the 2008 season was something that we haven't seen since the days that Bear Bryant roamed the sidelines at Alabama, and objectively speaking they posted the most Pythagorean Wins this season of any team in the modern history of SEC football. The offense produces points at historic levels, the defense is very good, and frankly it's an outright travesty if Tim Tebow does not win the Heisman Trophy again. I'll be frank, sorry OU fans, I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that Florida will win the national championship in a month, and frankly I think they'll win by a fairly big margin.
Our beloved Tide, though, deserves much credit too. As great as Florida is, the Tide clearly proved themselves to be right up there with him, and it's clear that our rise this season was no fluke. The truth of the matter is that Alabama withstood the adversity today, limited Florida's big plays, and took them right down to the wire. Frankly, we had the lead in the fourth quarter and we had them right where we wanted them. We had the tickets to Miami in hand, and it just barely slipped away late.
Hindsight 20/20, the game-changing play was the fifteen yard face mask called on Dont'a Hightower on the play where we stopped Florida short. I don't mean to sound like your typical sour grapes fan, but it was a blown call. I'm not sure he ever even touched the face make itself -- he pulled him down mainly, if not wholly, by the outside of the shoulder pads -- and even if he did it was clearly not egregious enough to justify the fifteen-yard personal foul penalty (which is the only face mask penalty now). If the referees get that call right, Florida either has to convert on fourth down or punt, and if we can stop them / force the punt there, we get the ball back with the lead, and we're probably talking about an Alabama v. Oklahoma national title game right now. Again, hindsight 20/20, that was the real turning point in the game... once Florida picked that one up, it was over from there.
At the end of the day, though, it was an extremely close game, and honestly it came down to red zone conversions more than anything else. It was a toe-to-toe match-up between two very even teams, and Florida just ended up making a couple of more plays than we did. Again, they are a truly great team, and I'm not going to say anything to denigrate them... they are that great. Credit goes where credit is due. For Alabama, it's really more bad luck than anything else. If we had been fortunate enough to draw a pushover team in the conference title game like LSU did a year ago, we'd be Miami-bound. Unfortunately, fate brought us perhaps the best team this conference has seen in decades. Such is life.
From here, though, it's not at all bad for the Crimson Tide. We'll now move on to the Sugar Bowl to play either Utah or Ohio State -- we'll get whoever the Fiesta Bowl does not pick -- and we'll have a chance to send out this senior class with a 13-1 record and Sugar Bowl champions. Hell, if we win that game, and Florida wins the BCS title game -- as I fully expect them to -- we'll probably even finish up number two in the country. Considering the sad and sorry recent history of Alabama football, the importance of those outcomes on the program's future cannot be overstated. It will help with immensely with recruiting, fan support, the profitability of the athletic department, the expansion of Bryant-Denny Stadium... you name it, in every aspect of the program this is a major step forward. All in all, the program is just light years ahead of anywhere could have reasonably expected it to be at this point, and no close loss to a team like Florida does anything to take away from that.
Moving forward to next year, the biggest problem we'll have to face is complacency. As exciting as this season was, and as bright as our future looks, we've still got a good ways to go. The offensive line will almost need a complete overhaul next season, we'll be breaking in a new quarterback (and, in all fairness, replacing John Parker Wilson will not be easy), and quite frankly we have to find an offensive playmaker at the receiver position not named Julio Jones. Moreover, we've got to replace Rashad Johnson and Bobby Greenwood on defense, rediscover good special teams play, and somehow find a way to rush the passer (something that killed us tonight against Florida). It's not that with the influx of talent that we should have any major problems doing any of those things, for the most part, but the team cannot lose sight of the fact that we haven't reached the mountain top yet, and that we've got a lot of work still to do.
Fortunately, though, with a head coach like Nick Saban, none of that should be a major problem. The schedule actually gets much easier next year -- a road game against Georgia is replaced by a home game against ever-mediocre South Carolina, and we get Tennessee, LSU, and Arkansas at home next season -- and if we stay focused in the off-season like we should, we still have a great chance at winning 10+ games next season and making a return trip to Atlanta (with a great chance at another BCS game to boot). We'll regress a bit in 2009, I'm sure (it's highly unlikely we can go 12-0 against next year), but I'm sure it will still be a great season.
As I said in the Iron Bowl recap last season, as long as Nick Saban spends his Autumn Saturdays at 100 Bryant Drive, the future of Alabama football is extremely bright. The truth of the matter is that, regardless of what this team did this year, this will be the least talented football team that the Crimson Tide fields for years and years to come. Bottom line, if things go according to plan, this season should only be the tip of the iceberg.
Finally, to close, congratulations are in order to Florida. They are a truly great team, and they are well-deserving of their accolades and accomplishments. It's a great program, and Urban Meyer, say what you will about him, at this rate, will probably go down as one of the all-time greats. But to the Gators, rest assured that you have no heard the last of the Crimson Tide. We'll only get bigger, faster, stronger, and deeper from here, and with the strength of these two programs, it's likely only a very short matter of time before these two teams meet again with national championship implications on the line.