The Gators spent their halftime break Saturday contemplating what they’d just done. They’d scored on three of their first four possessions. They’d forced a turnover. And yet: They trailed by 18 points, having been outgained 336 yards to 213, having yielded four touchdowns to Najee Harris, the tailback who might finish third in the Heisman voting if Heisman electors could choose only among Tide players.
Harris would add a fifth in the fourth quarter. He rushed for 178 yards; he had 67 more receiving. He was the best player on the field, but only just. The great receiver DeVonta Smith caught 15 passes for 184 yards and two touchdowns, his second being the clincher; he also recovered a fumble and covered an onside kick. And quarterback Mac Jones? He passed for 418 yards and five touchdowns. In all seriousness, that could be your Heisman podium right there.
SEC coaches entered the season doubting that any team could navigate an all-SEC schedule without tripping. Ten games, all against teams that call the conference where It Just Means More home. Every team except South Carolina and Vanderbilt took a swing at Bama. The Tide scored 38 points in its opener against Missouri. That would be their seasonal low. They broke 50 seven times.
For all the great teams Saban has had, this is the most exhilarating. Even with the quicksilver Jaylen Waddle lost in midseason to an ankle injury, this offense – under coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who washed out as Kyle Shanahan’s replacement with the Falcons – has been an astonishment. (And yes, we have vivid recall of how sleek LSU and Joe Burrow were last year.)
Saban said in midseason that stalwart defenses no longer win championships, and for him that marked a difficult concession. But the guy who has won multiple national championships with such defenses had, yet again, stayed ahead of the game. It’s now possible to score big against the Tide – Mississippi, which finished under .500, put up 48 points – but nobody this season has outscored them.
Alabama’s next stop will be in New Orleans on New Year’s Day for the CFP semifinal. The Tide will be seeded No. 1, and they’ll probably face Clemson again for the title. Those two have become epic rivals, the collegiate equivalent of Wilt versus Russell or Brady versus Peyton. It might take 60 points to win such a final.
Said Saban: “I’m really proud of our team for how they’ve competed all season. ... To win 11 games is pretty phenomenal.”
By Saban’s exalted standards, being pretty phenomenal is itself pretty phenomenal. But this was an Alabama team in Year 1 after Tua Tagovailoa, in what was for Bama a year of redemption. (The Tide spent New Year’s Day in the Citrus Bowl.) And this, as we can never forget, was the COVID year. Saban himself tested positive twice – once before the Georgia game, again the week of the Iron Bowl. And still: 11-0, with nary a directional school on the schedule.
Saban again: “I really love this team.”
When you win as big for as long as Alabama has, it’s impossible to be seen as a cuddly underdog. But there is about this team a likeability that previous editions haven’t had. Mac Jones wasn’t a huge recruit. This time 13 months ago, DeVonta Smith was considered the Tide’s fourth-best receiver. Najee Harris was rated a good back, but not a Heisman candidate on the order of Mark Ingram and Derrick Henry.
But this new Big Three has grown into one of the Biggest Threes ever seen on a college campus, and this Alabama team has done something none of its predecessors had to do. It worked 11 games against SEC-level competition. It went 11-0. Pretty phenomenal.