'Smitty,' Bama properly complete a season as perplexing but electric as any the sport has ever seen
The superlatives and debates will ring throughout Twitter feeds, message boards and — gosh, please, someday soon — heated bar discussions between friends much longer than the celebration at Alabama’s Miami team hotel Monday night into Tuesday morning.
Best ever? Most talented? Most electric?
But there’s only one descriptor needed to encapsulate what a historically exceptional Alabama team did in 2020-21. And it’s a proper noun.
“Smitty” is the affectionate nickname for Heisman Trophy-winning Crimson Tide receiver DeVonta Smith used by teammates and fans alike throughout Dixieland. No. 6 is a walking, breathing, sprinting, status-quo-defying, human metaphor for the top team of the Nick Saban era and possibly the most prolific attack in college football history. The group that helped him both eclipse and match Bear Bryant with 7 national championships and 6 with the same team.
All year, there was little that could be done to stop Smith. The same can be said for Alabama’s star-studded scoring machine.
And in the end, a freak hand injury was the sole entity that could slow down perhaps the best wideout this illustrious sport has ever seen.
It’s a cruel twist of both phalanx and fate that only this chaotic, befuddling college football season could culminate in: the game’s best player sitting alone in an X-ray room while his teammates capped a perfect season and a record-seizing title. After Smith outgained the entire Ohio State offense in the first half, a mangled finger early in the third quarter sent him to the medical tent for 20 minutes and then to the locker room for many more.
He didn’t return until close to the end, dressed in sweats and a Heisman face mask.
At least he got to celebrate with his teammates, the few humans with whom he had regular interaction during this COVID-19-sideswiped cacophony of a college slate.
You can draw the parallels to the Tide as a whole. How quarterback Mac Jones had to wince his way through some second-half agony of his own to finish the job Monday. How, if you can remember far back enough, not everyone was expecting this from Alabama.
“Slim Reaper,” the scrawny kid from the Bayou who looked more like an English Premier League regular than the NFL’s next star wideout in his slim-fit suit as he accepted the Heisman was always doubted because of his size. Similarly, Alabama was once knocked for losing quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, wideout Jerry Jeudy, running back Josh Jacobs and more to the NFL.
With all due respect to those guys, what a joke both prognostications turned out to be.
What the new-age triumvirate of Smith, Jones, running back Najee Harris and this offense achieved this year is dominance of the purest kind, right up there with anything else this sport has ever witnessed. The back-and-forth on the contextual statistical nuances between this team and last year’s LSU squad — considered by many the best offense ever — and others have time to play out.
After all, it’s gonna be a long offseason while we look forward to — we all hope — a more “normal” 2021.
Here’s one nugget to get the conversation going while the celebration is still fresh: Joe Burrow had 9.4 yards per play for that prolific Tigers offense last season. Jones this year? 10.4.
In any case, two things are certain:
- It says everything about where college football is 11 days into 2021 that the debate can come down to a pair of teams from the same division in consecutive years. This is the age of offense, in case anyone had a doubt, and the sport’s top-heaviness is an issue that will need to be addressed as time moves on.
- It’s absolutely insanely scary that Alabama was able to do what it did considering it played most of the season without its “other” top receiver Jaylen Waddle (who gave it a go Monday) and the College Football Playoff without its Outland Trophy-winning center Landon Dickerson (his only time on the field Saturday was during the coin toss, a victory-formation kneel-down and the postgame melee at Hard Rock Stadium).
But this is Saban, who continues to oversee an operation that’s as meticulous and thorough as it is dominant. And this is Alabama, the storied program with limitless resources that includes perhaps the top two coaches in college football history as part of its overall story.
Not to mention another roster with future NFLers up and down the lineup. And an offensive mastermind in outgoing coordinator Steve Sarkisian, whose game plan had Ohio State on its heels all night.
The offense led the way to Bama’s 13th win, and the Tide’s 52-24 victory over the Buckeyes was no outlier.
A Heisman finalist like his favorite target Smith, Jones limped off late in the fourth quarter after completing 36 of 45 throws for 464 yards and 5 touchdowns. Running back Najee Harris found the end zone 3 times just like Smith, capping his fantastic career. Quite possibly the best offensive line in school history played like it. John Metchie III, Slade Bolden and even Waddle took their turn benefitting from it all.
But there’s no one quite like Smith. The 6-1, 175-pound Amite, La., native broke BCS/College Football Playoff championship game records with 12 catches and 3 scores. He also surpassed SEC records for career receiving yards (3,965), single-season receiving yards (1,856) and receiving touchdowns (23).
And it all came in the first half, when he had 215 receiving yards to Ohio State’s 190 total yards.
“I’ve never seen one quite like that,” Buckeyes coach Ryan Day said.
To think Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade openly voiced his desire to guard the guy last week.
By the end, it was the likes of LeBron James and Patrick Mahomes lighting up Twitter with Smith’s praises Monday.
DeVonte Smith is one of the best pure receivers I’ve ever watched! Like a mix between Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison. Man he’s good!
— LeBron James (@KingJames) January 12, 2021
Lol they just need to put like everybody on him
— Patrick Mahomes II (@PatrickMahomes) January 12, 2021
It was a masterpiece ending to a season that, on a macro level, stunk in many fashions.
A mass exhale accompanied the images of Dickerson carrying a smiling Saban off the field as fireworks erupted into the Miami sky. It marked the end of months of daily COVID-19 testing, postponements and cancellations and playing in front of nonexistent-to-sparse crowds while watching other parts of society unravel among the virus and nationwide civil unrest.
And yet 18-22-year-old men have also provided a reminder of what happens when ultimate focus is applied toward a common objective. Yes, even in the too-big-to-fail business that college football has become, that still matters. Alabama’s coach missed a game with COVID, but the program lost just one start to the virus that had this entire operation in question during the summer.
That means no asterisks. Not for a team that went through college football’s toughest conference during this vexing year and finished 13-0.
“Perseverance is the word that probably describes this team the best,” Saban told ESPN in the immediate aftermath.
And no one better epitomizes that than Smith, who worked like heck to build his body into Division I dimensions, then came back along with several fellow seniors in search of a night like Monday night. He, Jones, Harris and others were around when the Tide did this in 2017, and they wanted to do it again.
It’ll be easy to remember Smith walking off the field with one towel on his injured hand and another towel in his mouth, visibly dejected at the early end to what could’ve been an even more illustrious night.
But it didn’t matter because of another lasting visual: Smith, after his third touchdown on a perfect 42-yard bomb from Jones, pointing to his quarterback back near midfield, participating in the Bama wideouts’ customary air guitar touchdown celebration, then simply jogging back to a spot on the bench and sitting back as if to admire his handiwork.
“We just finished writing our story,” Smith said on the postgame broadcast.