Alabama football: Stock report after Week 13
If not for a miracle, Alabama would’ve been doing the unimaginable this Saturday in Atlanta.
If not for Jalen Milroe’s magical 4th-down heave that will forever reside near the top of the list among Iron Bowl lore, the Crimson Tide would’ve been heading to play mighty Georgia for an SEC championship with absolutely no chance to then play for a national championship.
Yeah, it would’ve been really weird, right?
But it would’ve been reality.
Because even if the Tide were to take down the top-ranked, top-everything Bulldogs, end their seemingly endless win streak at 29 and raise that conference trophy amid all the confetti, Nick Saban’s bipolar crew still would have 2 losses to its name, including a stunning one against a so-so Auburn team in a game that meant everything for Bama beyond it being the Iron Bowl.
Only, the stunning loss that was 1 play from happening on The Plains didn’t happen.
Instead, 4th-and-goal from the 31 happened, and when the latest thrilling installment of arguably the richest rivalry in college football was over, the only people stunned were a home stadium and those same people who waited almost 3 months since the Texas loss to say, “See, I told you so.”
Instead, Alabama survived, 27-24, after flirting with defeat for an entire afternoon turned evening at Jordan-Hare.
Instead, it was the Tide screaming “I told you so” as they sprinted out of Dodge with their 10th win in a row to finish off an 11-1 regular season that was one of their most astonishing of the Saban Era and set the stage, barely, for that championship showdown with the 12-0 Dawgs.
Instead of the craziest SEC Championship Game scenario you could ever concoct — and Alabama somehow losing to Auburn as a 2-touchdown favorite to kill its College Football Playoff hopes but still having a shot at the SEC crown is pretty up there on the crazy meter — we get the collision in 6 days with absolutely everything you can imagine on the line being on the line for the Alabama football program.
We get the dynasty that’s teetering against the dynasty that seems to be arriving.
We get Saban, The Mentor, trying like heck to hold off Kirby Smart, The Pupil, who ran his defenses in T-Town for so many successful seasons.
We assume we get star tight end Brock Bowers, who was held out of the Georgia Tech game because of soreness in that surgically repaired ankle, running full speed into star linebacker Dallas Turner across the middle.
If we’re lucky, we’ll even get Ladd McConkey returning from injury to try to run free from Kool-Aid McKinstry’s grasp.
We’ll get Milroe the newly minted magician trying to push Bama back into the Playoff, after a 1-year hiatus, against that punishing Dawgs defense.
We’ll get Jermaine Burton trying to beat the program he left, the program he helped push past Alabama for that elusive national title 2 years ago that launched Georgia’s dominance.
We’ll get that equally punishing Tide defense that has been so consistently good since being shredded by Texas in Week 2 against a Georgia offense that has come alive as the season has progressed and the stakes have risen, even though it has hardly ever been fully healthy.
We’ll get Carson Beck, the 1st-year quarterback of that talented offense, playing in his 1st SEC Championship Game and facing Alabama for the very 1st time.
We’ll get it all, with everything at stake for the Crimson Tide and possibly even for the Bulldogs if everything else on Championship Weekend breaks against them.
And we’ll get it, minus the absolute weirdness that would’ve dragged down this mega showdown, because of an iconic Milroe miracle touchdown pass to Isaiah Bond that kept the Crimson Tide from immediate Playoff extinction.
When Terrion Arnold picked off Payton Thorne for the 2nd time Saturday to finish off the Tigers’ incredibly commendable upset bid, it also finished off Alabama’s perfect 8-0 run through the SEC, a far cry from where the Tide were a year ago at this time. Not many outside Tuscaloosa or even within the T-Town city limits expected Bama to be SEC West champions after the early loss to the Longhorns, but here the Tide are again, frantic Auburn finish and all, with all of their usual gawdy goals still in reach.
And as Bama now gets ready to play in yet another conference title game, we’ll do a little look back at a few moments (hint: a few are from Saturday) and players who made this latest trip to Atlanta possible:
Most improved player
You could say it’s sophomore linebacker Jihaad Campbell, and you would have a very good point. The guy broke out big-time in 2023 on a unit that includes the likes of Turner, Chris Braswell and Deontae Lawson. Campbell has a great run ahead of him in Tuscaloosa, too, and he has been a key contributor on a Tide defense that didn’t flinch after the Texas debacle. Without surprise contributors like him, Bama might not be headed back to Atlanta after a 1-year absence.
But why ignore what’s right in front of you? We won’t. So, yeah, we’ll say what’s kind of obvious — that the most improved player on the Crimson Tide is also the player who’s a fringe Heisman Trophy candidate. It’s Milroe, of course. The player tagged with the enormous task of taking over for Bryce Young, the player who started 2023 slowly, was left for dead by many and even lost his starting job for 1 game after throwing 2 picks against Texas. He was back in the lineup in Week 4 to begin the SEC gauntlet and never left. Eight conference wins without a loss and 1 miracle throw in the Iron Bowl later, and the Tide are SEC West champs with an 8-0 league record. And Milroe now gets his shot at Georgia on the 1st Saturday in December.
Milroe threw only 4 interceptions in the 9 games following the loss to the Longhorns, was off-the-charts dazzling in the victories over LSU (155 yards rushing, 4 rushing TDs) and Kentucky (3 passing and 3 rushing TDs), stayed away from the crushing mistakes that plagued him in limited duty in 2022 and early in 2023 and then delivered his signature moment in the biggest moment of all Saturday. From sideline spectator in mid-September in Tampa to Thanksgiving weekend hero at Auburn, it was quite a 3-month ascension for Milroe.
There was Campbell’s meteoric rise, and though Caleb Downs had freshman phenom written all over him, who really saw him running away with a team-leading 95 tackles when the season began? Come on now.
But really, this one is simple. The biggest surprise of 2023 for Bama wasn’t a player. It was Bama itself. The team. Because who, outside the biggest crimson-colored optimists out there, saw 11-1, a perfect 8-0 SEC mark and a berth opposite Georgia in the SEC title game coming into a season when the Tide were replacing all-time cornerstones Young and Will Anderson Jr. and had 2 new coordinators? After the early loss to Texas, let’s be honest, most were thinking 9-3 and 8-4 wouldn’t have completely shocked you.
But here we are in late November, and the Tide are getting ready for the top Dawgs next Saturday, with an SEC trophy on the line and a Playoff berth in the balance. It’s all surprising in the greatest of ways.
In this category, Bama saved its best for last. Yeah, the Tide were a 2-touchdown favorite, and, yeah, Auburn was coming off an embarrassing 3-touchdown loss to New Mexico State on the same field. But those fans who don’t learn to respect the history and nuances of a rivalry game, of The Rivalry Game, are doomed to be disappointed on a day when Alabama ekes out a victory on The Plains.
If you’re one of “those people,” then that’s a shame. Because any real Crimson Tide fan knows that when Alabama journeys to Jordan-Hare on Thanksgiving weekend with its national title hopes still alive (which is almost every time), weird stuff can happen. Like Auburn playing like it’s their Super Bowl, which it always is. Like Bama getting frazzled in the moment, which it did Saturday. When those 2 elements collide, things can get dicey and dramatic, and that’s what we got to end the 2023 regular season. Dicey and dramatic, and then outright crazy.
Forget the early Ole Miss win, the comeback against Tennessee and the outlasting of LSU, the 3 benchmark SEC victories that paved Bama’s path to Atlanta. Those were all great and necessary. But the best win of Alabama’s 11 was, by far, the one that just took place. Because if Milroe doesn’t connect with Bond on 4th-and-forever, there is still Atlanta but there is no Playoff berth after that, at least in any logical way you could think of. And just imagine the Tide wearing the psychological effects of a loss to hated, mediocre Auburn as they try to go beat mighty Georgia. That would’ve been an interesting task, to say the least.
Thanks to the best win of the season and instantly 1 of the most memorable in Bama’s long, proud history, it’s a predicament the Tide escaped.
Thankfully — and, for many, surprisingly — for Bama, there was only 1 loss to choose from, and it sure was pretty bad. It was a 34-24 setback against Texas way back in Week 2 that felt way worse because Saban hardly ever loses to his former assistants and the Tide hardly ever lose at home. Both of those thick-as-oak staples of the Saban Era came crashing down during 1 forgettable night (yeah, it was in prime time, no less) when Steve Sarkisian beat his former boss and Alabama suffered its 1st loss at Bryant-Denny Stadium since 2019.
It all feels like forever ago for Crimson Tide fans, particularly as they bask in the glory of the pulsating Auburn win and the trip to Atlanta, but the Texas debacle happened. And boy did it hit hard. Quinn Ewers sliced and diced the same Tide defense that has been so great since, throwing for 349 yards and 3 touchdowns without an interception. And Milroe the miracle worker tossed 2 interceptions, couldn’t keep up with Ewers and wore the badge of being the guy who tried and failed to replace Young.
The Texas mess cost Milroe his starting job, for 1 week at least, as Ty Simpson and Tyler Buchner played the following week in the ugly win at South Florida while Milroe watched and cheered from the sideline. Seems almost unimaginable now, right? Milroe was right back under center the week after in the victory over Ole Miss that launched Bama’s undefeated SEC run. Maybe the Longhorns fiasco was exactly what this program needed in the aftermath of the Young Era, because the 2023 Tide didn’t collapse afterward, as many thought they would. Instead, they rose up, ripped off 10 straight victories and could very well be playing for a national championship in a little over a month.
Play of the Year
For the Tide, the Play of the Year was one of their final plays of a gritty 11-1 regular season. Down 24-20 and down to their last shot to remain relevant in the College Football Playoff chase, as embarrassment stared them squarely in the eyes with a loss to a mediocre Auburn team with everything on the line, Milroe drifted back to pass, had a century to survey the scene with the Tigers dropping back in coverage and fired a pass to the back left corner of the end zone where only Bond could catch it.
He did. With 32 seconds left.
On 4th-and-goal. From the 31-yard line, for heaven’s sake.
It was an iconic Alabama football moment in an iconic college football rivalry. Afterward, Bond revealed to Yahoo Sports’ Ross Dellenger that the name of the play is “Gravedigger.”
Well, “Gravedigger” finally killed off Auburn and instantly brought the Crimson Tide’s world back to life.
Bama is still breathing with Georgia beckoning.