I remember watching the end of the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship and having a couple of thoughts.
One of which was that Deshaun Watson was some kind of player to put up that kind of fight against the Alabama defense twice.
The other was that the Alabama defense looked like it ran out of gas.
The latter was a long time coming after the Tide rolled through the entire 2016 season like one of the most dominant teams we’d ever seen. Alabama was an absurd +387 on the season, including a +186 mark in SEC play (that’s an average margin of victory of 23 points). As a result, the Tide played in just 2 games that were decided by 2 possessions or less before the national championship.
I’m starting to wonder if it’ll be even less in 2018. After all, Alabama is already +206 in 5 games (40.2 points per game margin of victory) and +77 in 2 SEC games.
Shoot, Tua Tagovailoa might become the first Heisman Trophy candidate not to throw a fourth-quarter pass until November. That’s a perfectly realistic possibility with the Tide’s upcoming slate.
But it’s not Tagovailoa or the offense that I question having enough legs left to play in the fourth quarter (it’s easy to forget that Jalen Hurts led a touchdown drive the last time he was on the field in that 2016 title game).
The question worth asking is whether Alabama’s dominant ways will lead to a defense that’s unfamiliar with playing a full 60 minutes like it was in 2016.
The identities of those teams are obviously much, much different. While Alabama was solid as a passing offense in Hurts’ freshman year — he did have 2,780 passing yards and 23 passing touchdowns — it was still nowhere near the high-octane offense it is in 2018 with Tagovailoa.
As a result, Alabama is putting teams away earlier than ever. In the first half in 2016, Alabama outscored teams 302-99. That’s an average halftime lead of 13.5 points. This year, Alabama outscored teams 197-20 in the first half. That’s an average lead of a 35.4 points heading into the break.
Nick Saban can preach the “treat every play like the game is on the line” all he wants, but the reality is, his first-string defense might not really have to play like that very often this year.
There’s two sides of the coin. In what could wind up being a 15-game season, the luxury of not having the same wear and tear of other teams is beneficial. If Alabama is relatively healthy when the postseason rolls around, we’ll circle back to that first-half efficiency as a reason that’s the case.
The other side of it is the conditioning aspect. There’s nothing that can truly simulate the physical stamina of playing 60 minutes with Clemson. Well, maybe except for playing 60 minutes against LSU.
That’s the game that’s circled on everyone’s calendar. Everyone expects Alabama to roll its October opponents (Arkansas, Mizzou and Tennessee) to set up that showdown with the Tigers. Even if both teams continue playing at their current pace, Alabama would probably still be a double-digit road favorite.
Does anything we’ve seen so far in 2018 suggest that anyone on the Tide’s remaining schedule can last 60 minutes? That’s especially true for Auburn and Mississippi State, both of whom have been disappointing offensively.
It took the perfect storm for that 2016 Alabama team to finally lose. It took a team that wasn’t intimated, was on the same level athletically and had a special quarterback. We don’t know if there’s a team that has all 3 of those things yet. There are elite teams with special quarterbacks like Georgia, Ohio State and Oklahoma, and they certainly aren’t lacking athletes across the board.
But as we found out in 2016, all it took was one team to go down to the wire and knock Alabama off its pedestal. It’s still too early to know if that team is out there.
And no, that’s not my way of saying “I’d feel a lot better about Alabama’s title chances if the Tide stopped destroying teams.” That’s a ridiculous thought. You can never be “too good.” It’s just one of the very few drawbacks of being too good in college football.
A little adversity isn’t the worst thing for a team. It can have major long-term benefits that prevent 18-22-year-old kids from panicking in the biggest game of their lives.
And I’m not talking about a secondary allowing a touchdown on the first play of the game like it did against Ole Miss. I’m talking about an Alabama secondary, which replaced its top 6 players from last year, having to come up with perfect coverage on 3rd-and-12 in a 1-score game in the fourth quarter. I don’t think Saban would mind seeing what that unit is made of. Shoot, I think we all would.
As dominant as Alabama has been, we don’t know if this kind of pace can be sustained. This is still the best division in America and this is still a 15-game season (unless you’re 2017 Alabama). Maybe history will repeat itself and the 2016 narrative will play out again.
Or maybe this time, Alabama is an unstoppable freight train that won’t slow down until it reaches its final destination.