Hayes: What if 4th-and-31 never happened? Imagining the fallout
The dang thing floated in the air for what seemed like forever, wobbling a bit as it dewdropped into the waiting arms of the only guy who could catch it.
But what if it didn’t?
What if Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe’s game-winning touchdown pass on 4th-and-31 fell harmlessly to the ground instead of the waiting hands of wideout Isaiah Bond — and the game ended in delirium on The Plains?
— Alabama is not in the Playoff.
— Georgia — no matter what happens in the SEC Championship Game — is in the Playoff.
— Florida State is still complaining about being left out of the Playoff.
— Auburn would have found its answer to Alabama coach Nick Saban with the coach (Hugh Freeze) who clearly knows how to beat the greatest ever — even with an average team and a passing game that can’t string together completions.
“One of the motivating factors for this team all year long was they want to prove who they were because of the criticism they got,” Saban said.
Imagine the criticism if 4th-and-31 falls incomplete, beginning a string of unintended consequences throughout college football.
The 2024 SEC season, already full of intrigue with the addition of Texas and Oklahoma, could be full of transition, too.
In the incomplete pass scenario, Georgia could win its 3rd straight national title. In fact, the Bulldogs would’ve be favored to do so.
If Georgia is in the Playoff, star quarterback Carson Beck doesn’t make an NFL Draft decision until after the semifinal or national title game. That means coach Kirby Smart must sign a quarterback from the transfer portal — Cam Ward, Maalik Murphy, Will Howard — to cover the 2024 season in case Beck leaves.
That moves affects USC (where Howard is committed) and Duke (where Murphy committed), and other programs currently trying to land Ward.
If Georgia is in the Playoff, a majority of its 17 players who entered the transfer portal would’ve stayed until the end of the Playoff. There’s no sense of urgency with the potential of winning another ring.
There are also a few unintended consequence that can’t be identified so easily. Most notably, Saban’s future.
Without the improbable 4th-and-31, Saban would have gone 3 straight seasons without a national championship at Alabama — his first 3-year stretch over 17 seasons in Tuscaloosa. (He still might, of course, but at least now Bama has a chance.) More telling: There would be blemishes — however small — in the armor.
His last 4 losses would’ve been to:
— A coach (Josh Heupel) at the forefront of the passing game, with a long-suffering blue-blood program (Tennessee) desperate to win.
— One of the game’s top 5 coaches (Brian Kelly) just ramping up at SEC blue-blood LSU.
— A former assistant (Steve Sarkisian) just getting untracked at a mega program (arguably the mega program in college football).
— And more disturbing than all, to Freeze — who beat Saban twice as the Ole Miss coach, and then again with a ragtag team that had no business being on the same field as Alabama.
Saban avoided the last of that run with 4th-and-31. but the 3 previous losses — all games Alabama could’ve and probably should’ve won — did more to ding the Saban mystique than what could’ve happened from the championship drought without the 4th-and-31 touchdown.
An incomplete 4th-and-31 would’ve simply underscored it all.
Because all 3 of those losses gave momentum to programs with deep pockets and the ability to recruit against Alabama at the high school and transfer portal levels. They’ve done more to breach the invincibility of Saban (and Alabama) than Georgia did the past 2 seasons.
Georgia is easy to understand. It’s Smart, Saban’s top lieutenant for 9 years — the elite assistant coach who helped Saban build the dynasty — taking the process and replicating it at his alma mater.
Even Texas and LSU — college football giants — can be choked down with a bit of humility.
But not Tennessee — which hadn’t beaten the Tide since the year before Saban arrived in 2007 — with a 2nd year coach and a castoff quarterback from the transfer portal.
And most certainly not Auburn — or at least, this version of Auburn. A team so inept offensively, so out of sync while finding its way through a tough rebuild, a 4th-and-31 prayer of a throw — because that’s what it was — could’ve had the greatest coach in football history questioning everything.
Instead, here we are: While Alabama isn’t the favorite to win the national championship, who among us would be shocked of the Tide won it all again?
If Milroe didn’t continue his masterful sense of making plays in critical moments (throwing or running), and if the Alabama defense didn’t continue to dictate tempo of games until the offense figured it out.
Who knows where the end of the season takes Alabama and Saban, but the idea of him winning it all and walking away doesn’t feel right.
There’s too much good that happened this season — before and after 4th-and-31. A locker room that galvanized behind a quarterback, team that rallied and got better every week after an ugly home loss in Week 2.
A quarterback who was benched, and less than 2 months later, was a Heisman Trophy finalist. A coach who looked destined for another non-championship season, did the best coaching job of his illustrious career and set up Alabama to reach the top of the mountain again.
All because Milroe found Bond, and 4th-and-31 became reality.