A Season of Dominance: Retracing Alabama’s journey toward perfection

Dec 3, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts (2) looks on during the trophy presentation with head coach Nick Saban and wide receiver ArDarius Stewart (13) after the SEC Championship college football game at Georgia Dome. Alabama defeated Florida 54-16. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

A Season of Dominance: Retracing Alabama’s journey toward perfection

Fewer than 24 hours after Alabama defeated Clemson in an instant classic last January to claim its fourth national championship under Nick Saban, the famed Crimson Tide coach was asked about the prospect of preparing to do it all over again.

“It’s like taking a new job,” Saban told a room full of reporters with the College Football Playoff trophy shining right beside him. “It’s a new season, it’s a new team, a new group of guys, new leadership, people are in different roles and that’s the challenge each and every year …

“All these things are just transitions that you have to go through to try to do the best to build the strongest team for next year.”

A run of this magnitude is rare in any sport at any level. Minnesota is the only college football program that can claim a similar run, winning five national titles from 1934-41, which it accomplished in a far less competitive and demanding era.

After becoming just the third coach in college football history to win five national championships, Saban was asked about gearing up for No. 6 (and No. 5 at Alabama). It’s the type of question that reveals just how daunting his profession can be in a society seeking the next best thing.

Nevertheless, Saban has unbeaten Alabama back on the cusp of another national championship — in a rematch with Clemson, no less. It’s a game with more historical implications, but for the Crimson Tide, it provides the opportunity to complete a perfect journey.

 April 16 – Alabama A-Day Game

Alabama took the field for the first time as defending national champions in the annual A-Day Game. With a squad full of returning veterans on both sides of the ball, there were only a few key battles to monitor.

Most notably: The quarterback position.

“There was some good plays made by some quarterbacks, and I think every one of them probably have some things that they can learn from,” Saban said of the team’s quarterback battle in the spring game. “But, I saw some good things and I saw some things that we probably need to do better.”

Of course, the quarterback battle was one of the top storylines all spring. With several key defensive pieces returning, there was plenty of talent on that side of the ball. The only true mystery was who would take over for Jake Coker.

In the mix were redshirt freshman Blake Barnett, redshirt junior Cooper Bateman, redshirt sophomore David Cornwell and a true freshman named Jalen Hurts.

Apr 16, 2016; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts (2) scrambles from Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker Anfernee Jennings (33) as Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban looks on at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Barnett and Hurts entered the season as the two quarterbacks left competing for the job, and it was apparent in the spring game that they offered the most upside.

“I think both guys made some good throws; both guys showed their athleticism in terms of ability to extend plays,” Saban said after the A-Day Game. “We certainly look a little faster, a little quicker, in terms of how we’re moving on offense when those two were in there, especially in the first half.”

Although the final score was just 7-3, the offensive upside was apparent due to the raw talent at quarterback. In the season opener, the nation got a chance to see that upside on full display.

Sept. 3 – No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 20 USC

Despite an entirely new starting backfield, the Crimson Tide entered the season ranked No. 1 and began their quest for a repeat with a marquee matchup against USC in Arlington, Texas.

Entering the game, the Trojans’ fanbase was confident that their team could start Alabama’s season with a loss on national television. As they would soon learn, like most other confident programs, the Crimson Tide aren’t to be taken lightly.

Barnett started at quarterback, but it was Hurts who brought the most out of the offense. After fumbling the ball on his very first college play, there was nowhere to go but up for Hurts. He rebounded, however, and showed everyone just why he was one of the few true freshmen capable of starting for the Tide.

Hurts finished with four total touchdowns; he wasn’t asked to do much, but he made the plays he needed to and helped the offense find its rhythm.

“I think Jalen, each series that he played, got more and more comfortable,” Saban told reporters after the victory. “He adds a dimension with his athleticism and his ability to run that I think is very effective, and I think that actually opened up the running game.”

While Hurts added a new element to Alabama’s offense, the defense had the same type of dominant performance we’d come to expect. Alabama held the Trojans to under 200 yards on offense, and Marlon Humphrey scored on a pick-six, something that would become a big trend throughout the season.

Sept. 10 – No. 1 Alabama vs. Western Kentucky

After what Alabama did to USC, this performance was somewhat of a disappointment.

Hurts once again had a big outing in his first start, this time doing much of his damage through the air. The freshman finished with 287 passing yards and 2 touchdowns. Most important, however, he did enough to lock up the starting job.

It wasn’t a good day for Alabama’s run game, which mustered only 124 yards against a Western Kentucky defense that allowed nearly that many to Rice in Week 1.

The lingering moment that encapsulated the frustration surrounding that game was a video of Saban yelling at offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin in the closing seconds.

The defense, however, did its job. The game was punctuated by the Tide’s second pick-six of the season, this time by senior star Eddie Jackson.

“When I catch the ball, I just try to turn to an offensive player and score a touchdown, make a big play for the team,” Jackson told reporters of his touchdown in the second quarter. “I know it was a crucial turnover. We needed to score, so I tried my best to get into the end zone.”

Sept. 17 – No. 1 Alabama at No. 19 Ole Miss

The rematch Alabama fans had been waiting an entire year for. Ole Miss was trying to beat Saban for the third consecutive year — a feat no team had managed.

Alabama was in major trouble when Ole Miss jumped to a 24-3 lead and had a ravenous crowd at its backs. The Crimson Tide reeled off 14 points before halftime, however, including Jackson’s 85-yard punt return for a touchdown.

Sep 17, 2016; Oxford, MS, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide played react as defensive back Eddie Jackson (4) returns an interception for a touchdown the second quarter of the game against the Mississippi Rebels at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Alabama won 48-43. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Bama was just getting started. Minutes into the third quarter, Da’Ron Payne recovered a Chad Kelly fumble and scored to knot the game at 24, and Jonathan Allen returned a fumble 75 yards to take a commanding 48-37 lead late in the fourth quarter.

Bama tallied three more non-offensive touchdowns, extending a consecutive game streak that started in the previous year’s Playoff semifinal.

“I tried to get my hands up, and the ball just happened to bounce my way,” Allen told TideTV immediately after the game. “Thank God for my teammates blocking for me. They’re the ones that really allowed me to get to the end zone, so I’ve got to give them the credit.”

The 48-43 victory helped exorcise some of the few Crimson Tide’s demons. It was an early statement victory and the only time Alabama would win by one possession.

Sept. 24 – No. 1 Alabama vs Kent State

The Crimson Tide’s second game against a non-Power 5 opponent went much better than the first — against Saban’s alma mater, no less. Alabama rolled on offense and pitched a shutout on defense, which helped set the tone for the rest of the season.

Despite losing starting running back Damien Harris on the first drive, the Crimson Tide gained 285 yards on the ground. Freshman Joshua Jacobs led the way with 97 yards and 2 touchdowns on 11 carries, and Hurts pitched in with 218 total yards and 2 touchdowns.

Two more non-offensive players scored a touchdown, bringing that total to five for the season. Xavian Marks returned a punt 75 yards for a score just before halftime, and Mack Wilson caught Hurts’ lone touchdown pass of the game midway through the third quarter.

“He made a nice catch, and I’m happy that he was able to score a touchdown,” Saban told reporters of Wilson’s touchdown. “I’m also happy that he was able to play a significant amount on defense as well, which will certainly help his development.”

These games are often taken for granted by fans, but they are vital in allowing young players to gain valuable experience. Wilson certainly was an example of that.

Oct. 1 – No. 1 Alabama vs. Kentucky

For homecoming, Alabama had a cross-division matchup with Kentucky. The Wildcats struck first, but they wouldn’t score again until the closing minutes of the fourth quarter as the Tide rolled to a 34-6 victory.

A few individuals punctuated the victory. Jacobs made the most of his first career start, gaining 154 total yards and a touchdown.

“Josh is really playing well,” Saban told reporters after the game. “He’s done a nice job for us, and we have a lot of confidence in Josh…

“We decided that we would spot-play (Damien Harris) and use him in third down. That gave Josh a little more opportunity, and he certainly took advantage of it and did a great job.”

Oct 1, 2016; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back Joshua Jacobs (25) carries the ball against the Kentucky Wildcats at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Ronnie Harrison recovered a fumble and returned it 55 yards for a touchdown to continue Alabama’s streak of non-offensive touchdowns. Harrison became the sixth non-offensive player to score for the Tide.

Kentucky provided a nice tune-up for a big stretch of talented SEC programs that began with a trip to Fayetteville.

Oct. 8 – No. 1 Alabama at No. 16 Arkansas

Against Arkansas, Alabama faced its highest-ranked opponent to that point in the season. The Razorbacks’ only loss was against a talented Texas A&M squad.

After a tight first quarter, yet another defensive touchdown swung the momentum. Tim Williams’ 23-yard fumble return gave Alabama a 21-7 lead, which it would then extend to 35-17 by halftime. Williams also contributed in the pass rush, sacking Austin Allen once and pressuring him two other times.

“Tim had an outstanding game,” Saban told reporters after the win. “Other than the pressure, that was probably the best thing about our pass defense that we had. We were able to get some sacks and pressures on the quarterback.”

It wasn’t a perfect performance, however. Allen threw for 400 yards – the second time an offense gained over 400 yards passing against the Tide. Minkah Fitzpatrick did manage to intercept Allen three times, however, including a 100-yard pick-six that served as the dagger.

Offensively, Alabama gained over 500 yards, its highest total at that point. Hurts was once again efficient, throwing for 253 yards with 2 touchdowns. Harris returned to action and led the way on the ground with 122 yards on 13 carries.

It was a hard-fought road victory, but another tough SEC trip loomed just around the corner.

Oct. 15 – No. 1 Alabama at No. 9 Tennessee

This was the game everybody pointed to in July — a showdown in Rocky Top between two teams picked to meet again in December in Atlanta.

Joshua Dobbs, one of the SEC’s best dual-threat quarterbacks, had the ability to make improvisational plays, a proven antidote against the Crimson Tide. This was a different defense, however, and Dobbs never had a chance.

The Crimson Tide held Tennessee to just 163 total yards. Harrison scored his second touchdown of the season on a 58-yard interception return and Jackson had a 79-yard punt return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Oct 15, 2016; Knoxville, TN, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide defensive back Ronnie Harrison (15) returns an interception for a touchdown against the Tennessee Volunteers during the first half at Neyland Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Alabama continued three streaks during its 49-10 thumping in Knoxville. It scored a non-offensive touchdown for the ninth consecutive game, it moved to 7-0 on the season and beat Tennessee for the 10th consecutive time.

Alabama’s defense was perfectly complemented by its ability to run the ball. The Tide gained over 400 yards on the ground, including a combined 335 yards and 4 touchdowns from Hurts, Harris and Scarbrough. It was the team’s most complete performance.

“I think the defense played outstanding, but our ability to run the ball for 400 yards, or whatever, took a lot of time off the clock, kept them off the field and I think our guys just did a really really good job,” Saban told reporters after the game. “This is as proud of our team as I’ve been all year long.”

Oct. 22 – No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 6 Texas A&M

The Crimson Tide’s complete game against Tennessee provided a nice boost of confidence. It followed with another victory against a top-10 opponent in Texas A&M. The Aggies managed to take a second-half lead, something that hadn’t happened to Alabama since the Ole Miss game, but the Tide responded: Texas A&M never scored again.

After Texas A&M took its 14-13 lead early in the third quarter, Hurts led a 14-play, 77-yard drive that ended with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Ridley. The next touchdown came via an Allen 30-yard fumble return, his second of the season and Alabama’s 12th non-offensive touchdown of the year.

“I was really proud of the way our players, after going down 14-13, played in the second half,” Saban told reporters after the win. “After we got in that position, I thought it was great competitive character on their part to persevere. We scored on offense, scored on defense, controlled the ball, and played better on defense.”

Alabama’s defense was just getting started. They wouldn’t allow another team to score a touchdown in the entire month of November.

Unfortunately, the win came with a price. Star defensive back Eddie Jackson fractured his leg, which ended his season and playing career at Alabama.

Nov. 5 – No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 13 LSU

The final ranked opponent of a tough four-game stretch, LSU has long been considered one of the few teams capable of defeating Alabama. That reputation had diminished in recent years as the Tide took a five-game winning streak into Baton Rouge, but under interim coach Ed Orgeron, the Tigers had new life and looked dangerous.

As is often the case, this game quickly turned into a defensive slugfest. Hurts struggled mightily through the air. Fortunately, he was much more effective on the ground and led the way with 114 yards and the game’s only touchdown.

While the Tide’s offense took its lumps, the defense cemented its status as one of the best in the nation — and increased talk that this might be Saban’s best yet. For the second year in a row, Alabama held star running back Leonard Fournette in check. The LSU back gained just 35 yards on 17 carries.

Nov 5, 2016; Baton Rouge, LA, USA; LSU Tigers running back Leonard Fournette (7) is tackled by Alabama Crimson Tide defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson (54) during the third quarter of a game at Tiger Stadium. Alabama defeated LSU 10-0. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

“We take great pride in being able to stop the run,” Allen told TideTV immediately after the win. “We practiced like bats out of Hell all week, I mean all week. It was very intense. So, preparation is the reason we came out here and had the success that we did today.”

Alabama’s defense didn’t score but it forced LSU to become one-dimensional, and Tigers quarterback Danny Etling was not up to the task. Etling threw for 92 yards on 24 pass attempts and was picked by Fitzpatrick, who earned his fourth interception of the year.

Nov. 12 – No. 1 Alabama vs. Mississippi State

After such a tough slate of games, it would be easy for the Tide to play down to the level of their next opponent. Instead of starting slow, however, Alabama had a first-half shutout and dominated Mississippi State from start to finish in a 51-3 beatdown.

Intent on getting Hurts back on track after a couple of poor outings throwing the ball, Saban met with the freshman quarterback to watch film early in the week. That meeting paid off greatly, as Hurts responded with a career day. He threw for 347 yards and four touchdowns. He also added 100 yards on the ground and another score.

It was his best performance to date, proving to the coaching staff that he was capable of learning on the fly.

“Jalen had a really good day today,” Saban told the media after the game. “It’s one of the things that we’ve been wanting to do in trying to develop some confidence in the passing game, and obviously, he was able to do that very well today.

“Jalen also having 100 yards rushing is something that’s never been done here before with 300 yards passing and 100 yards rushing. That’s something that we can be proud of.”

In the LSU game, Alabama’s defense proved it was capable of winning a game almost single-handedly. This victory was a reassuring sign that Hurts could put up big numbers and lead an effective passing attack.

To cap the day, Alabama clinched the SEC West thanks to former defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who led Georgia to an upset victory against Auburn.

Alabama, 10-0, knew it was headed back to Atlanta to defend its SEC title.

Nov. 19 – No. 1 Alabama vs. Chattanooga

While Alabama fired on all cylinders against Mississippi State, there was a hint of a letdown against Chattanooga.

The defense only allowed three points, but Saban was far from pleased with the 31-3 effort.

“If you’re not really ready to play, and you don’t prepare well to play, it’s very difficult when you don’t have high energy and intensity to compete in this kind of a game,” Saban said of the contest. “The other team has a historical moment when they come to play you. They can make history by doing something special, and it’s a very big game for them.”

There wasn’t really a standout performer on either side of the ball, though Hurts did contribute three touchdowns. After the game, Saban explained that there were lessons his team could learn, but that they now needed to prepare for Auburn and the Iron Bowl.

Nov. 26 – No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 13 Auburn

One of the top rivalries in college football, the Iron Bowl has become a game where the unexpected is almost always expected.

The Crimson Tide weren’t flashy, but they continued their string of dominant second-half performances and put Auburn away 30-12 to cap their perfect regular season.

ArDarius Stewart caught 10 passes for 127 yards and a touchdown. Hurts struggled with ball security for much of the first half, which allowed the Tigers to keep the game closer than it should have been. Still, he cleaned up his performance after halftime and led the Tide to 14 points in the third quarter.

Nov 26, 2016; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver ArDarius Stewart (13) carries Auburn Tigers defensive back Johnathan Ford (23) during the first quarter at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

There was no need for the Tide’s defense to turn things around in the second half, as they did not allow a touchdown for the fourth consecutive game.

“I was really proud of the way the guys competed,” Saban told reporters afterward. “I can’t tell you about the scoring touchdowns thing. I know our guys are very competitive and have a lot of pride, and they have played at a really high level – especially in these past three or four games.”

Dec. 3 – No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 15 Florida in SEC Championship

For the second consecutive year, Alabama met Florida in the SEC Championship Game. The first matchup proved to be an easy Tide victory behind a smothering defense and a strong running game. Many expected more of the same.

In an interesting turn of events, the Gators’ much-maligned offense took the opening kickoff and marched down the field to score the first touchdown against Alabama’s defense since the Texas A&M game.

To further the Tide’s problems, the offense couldn’t get anything going in the first quarter. Fortunately, Alabama’s ability to score in other phases proved beneficial. Fitzpatrick scored on a 44-yard pick-six in the first quarter, and that touchdown was immediately followed by a Jacobs’ score off a blocked punt.

“This group, we’ve scored more non-offensive touchdowns this year, I think, than any team I’ve ever been associated with,” Saban told reporters afterward. “I think it speaks to the playmaker type guys that we have, the good job the coaches do putting them in position.”

After the slow start, Alabama began to take over on offense as well, rolling to a 54-16 victory.  The Tide scored on their final three possessions, thanks largely to Bo Scarbrough, something that proved to be a sign of things to come.

With Saban’s fifth SEC title during his decade of dominance in hand, Alabama now turned its attention to the College Football Playoff.

Dec. 31 – No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Washington in Peach Bowl semifinal

Back in the Playoff for the third consecutive year, the defending champions faced a complete Washington squad that featured one of the nation’s top offenses.

Like Florida, Washington scored the game’s first touchdown and didn’t appear to have much trouble navigating Alabama’s defense in the process. Those were the only points the Huskies’ would score, however, as the Tide shut them down from that point onward, winning 24-7.

Washington’s defense gave Hurts and Alabama’s offensive line trouble throughout. Fortunately, Scarbrough built upon his performance in the SEC Championship Game and turned in a career day and record performance.

Dec 31, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back Bo Scarbrough (9) runs against Washington Huskies defensive back Jojo McIntosh (14) during the second quarter in the 2016 CFP semifinal at the Peach Bowl at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

It was later learned that several players in the Alabama program expected Scarbrough to have a big game, and Saban spoke to the value his running back offered to the team.

“He’s got great size and speed,” Saban told reporters afterward. “He can run behind his pads. He’s got good vision. He’s a good receiver and he can block. So he can do all the things that any good running back can do. His productivity has certainly been a benefit to this team, especially the second half of the season.”

Behind Scarbrough’s outing, Alabama returned to the College Football Playoff National Championship Game for the second consecutive season. In a fitting manner, the Tide will once against face Clemson, which will be looking for revenge after last year’s 45-40 defeat.

The two teams clearly look like the top programs in college football.

It will take Alabama’s best effort to complete its journey for perfection and defend its title as college football’s best team.

It’s been nearly a year since Saban addressed the media after winning his fifth national championship — fourth at Alabama — and was asked about the prospect of having to do it all over again. He said then it was like taking a new job with new goals and new challenges.

Now, he stands on the cusp of accomplishing that goal, but he has a very familiar challenge ahead: beating Clemson.

If the Crimson Tide defeat the Tigers for the second year in a row, they will have completed their journey of perfection and Saban will have matched Bear Bryant’s record of six national championships.

Perhaps then Saban will be able to look back on all that this Alabama team has accomplished. Of course, he won’t be able to dwell on the past for too long. He will have a new job to begin.

William McFadden covers the University of Georgia and the University of Alabama for Saturday Down South. For insight on these two SEC powerhouses, follow him on Twitter @willmcfadden