A few belated initial impressions from the aftermath of Alabama's 42-14 victory over Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship Game:
In hindsight, despite what may have been printed on tickets and other promotional materials, the BCS National Game was played in Atlanta, not Miami, and Alabama secured the crystal football when Georgia came up five yards short with Chris Conley sitting helpless on the turf of the Georgia Dome with no way to stop the hands of time. Give tremendous credit where it is due to Brian Kelly and Notre Dame for having such an unexpected surge this season, but Alabama dispensed of the Irish without ever being threatened and left the Golden Domers looking far closer to being on the level of the BYUs and Purdues of the world than they were of legitimately challenging a team like Alabama for the national championship. On this night, Notre Dame was little more than the prime rib being served as the main course in the Crimson Tide's moveable feast. Perhaps Oregon or Texas A&M could have taken down Alabama on Monday night, but sixty minutes of one-sided warfare made it clear that Notre Dame could mount no such opposition.
In fairness to Notre Dame, though, the Fighting Irish drew Alabama at the absolute worst time, at that one final moment where the Crimson Tide ultimately put together a complete performance and stopped being its own worst enemy. The box score last night tells the tale: Zero turnovers, zero special teams breakdowns, zero sacks, no major blown defensive assignments, only four penalties, and five touchdowns in five trips to the red zone. Had Alabama came out with a mistake-filled performance like it did against Texas A&M or Georgia, perhaps the Irish would have had a fighting chance, but with Alabama playing nearly flawless football in all three stages of the game no opponent would have had any real chance, and so was the harsh reality for the Irish.
The tone of the night was set on the opening drive of the game by Alabama, which in and of itself indicated with great clarity that Notre Dame was simply no match for the Crimson Tide. The Fighting Irish opened the game with a five-man front and nose guard Louis Nix III playing the one and zero techniques over injured Alabama center Barrett Jones, and further bolstering the run defense by bringing both safeties into the box and dialing up aggressive run blitzes. Even with eight and nine defenders committed to stopping the run, however, Alabama still ran the football at will over the Irish, and the passing game had all of the open spaces of the Great Plains. When Alabama marched down the field with no real resistance, it was exceedingly obvious that Notre Dame was in for a long night and that the pre-game prognostications predicting a tight, low-scoring affair, including the one from this writer, were going to be wildly off the mark.
The box score also tells the tale on the struggles and complete ineffectiveness of the Notre Dame defense: Alabama ran 73 plays from scrimmage, of which Notre Dame generated zero interceptions, zero forced fumbles, zero sacks, zero quarterback hurries, zero balls batted at the line of scrimmage, and only three tackles for loss to go along with one pass broken up. The Notre Dame defense may have had hype and media adoration on its side, but against Alabama they far more closely resembled a collection of cardboard cutouts than a steel curtain.
The Alabama offense did as it pleased all night long, and while it played well enough in its own right, the defense was not quite as strong. The stop on the opening drive of the game could have easily gone the other way on the incomplete pass call, and after two quick punts to open the game, the Notre Dame settled in and had some reasonable success, gaining over 280 yards of total offense and scoring 14 points on its next six full possessions. Field position was the real culprit for the Notre Dame offense, with the Irish starting past their own 25-yard only once in the game (which came with only five minutes left in the fourth quarter). Given the poor field position, the consistent drives with moderate success generally did little more than drain the clock.
After the dominating first half by Alabama, the only real chance Notre Dame had of making this even a remotely competitive game was to take the opening kickoff of the second half and score a touchdown. The result? Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix made an aerial interception at the Alabama 3-yard line, and Alabama responded with a 10-play, 97-yard touchdown drive to build the lead to 35-0. The game looked over as it was, but that was the final pile of earth shoveled upon the Notre Dame grave.
With the victory last night, Nick Saban wins his fourth national championship in his past eight years in college football -- which does not include the 2007 national championship, which was won in part by his recruiting efforts -- and as such he moves into the pantheon of all-time college football coaches. While Saban may be a divisive figure, the undeniable truth remains that when this period of time is viewed through the lenses of history, this will be undoubtedly remembered and codified as the era of Nick Saban. Influence notwithstanding, he has dominated the sport from 2001-2012 in a way that even several other legendary coaches can only dream, and even if he goes no further than this, his place in history will be cemented so long as college football remains a going concern.
The oft-repeated phrase in the state of Alabama is that defense wins championship, but on this year's team it is more appropriately stated that offense won this championship. Even the SEC Championship Game performance notwithstanding (i.e. 350 rushing yards to key a come-from-behind victory), last night when Alabama took the field the defense mainly looked to find a way to get off the field and make Notre Dame earn points via long drives. When the Alabama offense took the field, however, it was absolute domination, and the Notre Dame defense at times was almost literally running backwards.
Regarding the effectiveness of the offense, consider the following: This season, Alabama had a quarterback throw for 2,900+ yards to go along with 30 touchdowns against only 3 interceptions, had a pair of tailbacks who each exceeded 1,000 rushing yards and combined for 29 rushing touchdowns, had a wide receiver with 1,000 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns, and had an offensive line in which all five starters will play in the NFL, four of which could feasibly, perhaps even probably, be first round NFL Draft choices. Again, the defense did well enough this season, but the offense was the driving force behind this national championship. It may not get the appropriate credit given that it is not the hurry-up or pass-heavy attack preferred by countless media pundits, but that alone does not take away from what this unit accomplished.
Is this the best coaching job we have seen to date from Nick Saban? With all due respect to what this team accomplished this season, it is almost hard to fathom how far they went with so little experience and offseason attrition. Only nine seniors returned, countless impact players were lost to the NFL, and injuries hit several positions very hard. Even so, Alabama beat LSU in Baton Rouge, beat Georgia in Atlanta, annihilated eleven other opponents in its path, including Notre Dame, with its only loss coming against a top-five Texas A&M team, with a Heisman Trophy winner under center, after a furious comeback attempt fell just two yards short. Impressive resume regardless, but one held in even higher regard given the context.
While "dynasty" will remain a four-letter word to those within the program, it is hard to remain within the bounds of reason and not have a definition of that word that excludes Alabama in its current state. It is largely a semantic, meaningless discussion, to the extent that it even is a legitimate discussion to begin with, but with three national championships in four years, sixty-one wins in the past five years, countless players placed in the NFL, a Heisman Trophy winner, and a semi-truck full of hardware in tow ... if this is not a dynasty then a dynasty is not a realistically attainable achievement in the current college football format.
Manti Te'o certainly seems like a fine young man and if nothing else he receives nothing but glowing remarks from those he comes across off the field, but few had a worse night than he did between the sidelines. Despite the accolades for his on-field performance, Te'o was not a player who made many plays in the opposing backfield, and his statistics were generally not particularly gaudy throughout the year. On Monday night, though, he looked closer to a walk-on than a superstar linebacker. On multiple occasions, in fact, Alabama didn't even put a hat on the senior linebacker, and instead chose to force him to attempt to tackle tailbacks Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon in the open field, and on numerous occasions Te'o came up empty. His name was barely called on the night with the exception of when he missed plays, and in general he was a complete non-factor in the game. With the NFL Draft quickly approaching this upcoming April, perhaps no one lost more money on Monday night than Te'o.
With Notre Dame lying ravaged in the wake and a fifteenth national championship headed back to Tuscaloosa, the most pressing order of business will be the decisions of D.J. Fluker, DeMarcus Milliner, and Eddie Lacy regarding their plans for the upcoming year. All three are expected to forego their final year of eligibility and enter the NFL Draft, though we have no official confirmation just yet. Fluker anticipates making an announcement today, and Milliner has long since been considered likely to enter the Draft. The wild card here is likely Lacy, who several thought would return, but who will now likely join Fluker and Milliner after posting two dominant performances against Notre Dame and Georgia after finally returning to full health for the first time in almost two years. Given the massive paydays that undoubtedly await this upcoming April, the smart decision for all three is likely to ride off into the collegiate sunset and begin preparing for the NFL Combine.
In other quick hitters, Kevin Norwood does nothing if not come up big in big games; the kid understands the grandiosity of the stage. Obvious to all that Amari Cooper will be a three-year player. Ditto T.J. Yeldon. The victory last night gives the remaining members of the 2008 recruiting class an eye-whopping 61 wins since arriving on campus. AJ McCarron will certainly miss the big-bodied red zone threat from Michael Williams next season. Good thing that Alabama didn't need Jeremy Shelley to make a kick in a key situation after he scraped multiple extra points just inside the uprights. The kick-catch interference call on the overturned Notre Dame fumble recovery appeared to be within the definition of the written rule, though in practice it is typically not so strictly administered by the officiating crew. Don't believe five yards can be equivalent to a million miles? Ask a Georgia fan. Deion Belue has had his fair of struggles this season, but he perfectly played the deep fourth down pass in the second quarter. Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix has played his best football in the past two games. Brandon Ivory and D.J. Pettway each made outstanding plays behind the line of scrimmage in the closing stages of the second half. Denzel Devall played on Monday night, though Kenny Bell did not, despite dressing for the game. Jarrick Williams did not dress for the game. Suspended true freshmen Dillon Lee and Ryan Anderson were sent home from Miami via Greyhound bus. Alabama could claim a couple of players who stole the "Rudy" mantra last night, walk-ons who you wouldn't have otherwise known were even on the team until you saw them quoted in your copy of the New York Times.
All in all, in summation, just consider the context of the accomplishment: Alabama -- you know, that same ol' washed-up, has-been, never-will-be-again program that just wants to live in the past and tell all those hackneyed and likely apocryphal Bear Bryant stories over and over and fire coaches because they had the audacity to lose the A-Day game -- won yet another national championship, this time by annihilating Notre Dame of all teams, in the same city that produced one of the greatest heartbreaking moments in the long and storied history of Crimson Tide football (to the Irish, no less), in a laughable blowout that more resembled a royal coronation than a legitimately competitive sporting contest. The bittersweet reality for the Alabama faithful? It cannot, and probably will not, ever get any better than this. But with Nick Saban seemingly entrenched in Tuscaloosa and still in the prime of his career, and with a proverbial NFL factory of talent still churning at maximum capacity, Tide fans can certainly look forward to trying to test that statement in the years ahead.