If you were surprised, shame on you. Alabama beating Notre Dame handily was one of the safest bets of the bowl season, if only because the Fighting Irish’s quarterback situation was never truly settled this year, and the Crimson Tide had A.J. McCarron, Mr. Efficient, who skewered Notre Dame’s secondary with well-thrown corner routes. You also saw Alabama’s impressive array of young receivers.
That Alabama blew out the Irish 42-14 points to just how elite the Tide’s offensive line really is. Yes, running backs Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon are gritty, slippery runners who don’t quit. But Alabama’s line? Inspiring. How athletic, cohesive, mean and just plain smart they are. That’s a well-coached and well-trained group. Notre Dame’s front seven – surely one of the nation’s five best – just couldn’t hang in. Not only would the Irish have to be as talented as Bama’s line/backs – and they are not – but they’d have to want it as badly. And they didn’t. The Tide plays hard. Really hard. You’re not just matching talent. You’re forced to match effort. Alabama’s effort, combined with the talent, is what separates it from LSU and Georgia, the other two most talented teams in the country this year. Georgia very nearly has all the players Alabama does, and very nearly beat the Tide in the SEC title game. But Georgia doesn’t have the effort. Not across the board. Not in all 11 players. Not the way Alabama does. You can hate Alabama, but if you love football, you admire what they do and how they do it. Because it’s how it should look. It’s how it should be done.
And I think the distinction is the one between Nick Saban – a bloodless, cutthroat Napoleon, who, like his mentor Bill Belichick, takes obscene pleasure in exploiting the smallest details – and Mark Richt. Richt has an ego, but there’s an expansiveness in him, a worldliness, that’s not bound to splitting every atom of his football team. (I’d actually say the same of Les Miles, although Miles is a boneheaded gameday coach, too) A guy like Urban Meyer lives in the tension between Saban and Richt. He knows how to go to the place where Saban resides, but, in the unfolding play that is the drama of Meyer’s existence, it apparently troubles him. He writes contracts on pink paper and assuages his beautiful wife and daughters. Saban seems so unencumbered by any of this. Like Belichick, he’s distilled a complex game into a thousand elements that his mind can track. His defense has three guys where other defenses would have two. His running backs play with instinct and brazen toughness; Lacy and Yeldon, like Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson before them, are remarkably confident runners. His physically unspectacular quarterbacks play with poise and command under pressure. I suspect McCarron, like Greg McElroy at Alabama and Matt Mauck at LSU, will be a non-factor in the NFL. But at Alabama, he’s a stirring-not-shaken leader.
There’s always this impulse to compare great coaches to war generals – say, like Patton – and perhaps once, in a cruder time, this was apt. The game really did boil down to one team going through the other like crap through a goose.
But Patton – passionate, inspired to the point of foolishness, recklessly brilliant, swayed by the sentiment of men at war – is inapt for a guy like Saban. Saban is closer to elite problem solvers of today – Gates, Jobs – crossed with an elite legal mind. A John Roberts, if you will. And then there’s a political element there, too – the ability to sell. Saban is not cut from the cloth of the 1950s, as much as he might like to be (since most football coaches presume, incorrectly, it was “better” then). He, like Belichick, has cut a lot of the emotional chaff away. He can just keep going and going.
And unlike Belichick – who essentially uses the Moneyball formula to surround Tom Brady with high-value, low-cost supporting players – Saban really can put 22 elite players on the field. Year after year.
To beat a program like that, on any kind of regular basis, either takes a remarkable player – Johnny Football or Cam Newton – considerable, repeated luck, or the willingness to go where Saban goes as a leader. Which program is up for it? Urban Meyer’s Ohio State? Maybe – if Meyer doesn’t spontaneously combust. Brian Kelly’s Notre Dame? Maybe – but I’m not sold on Kelly’s offense, which barely had an identity last night? Les Miles’ LSU? Not unless Miles, kind of a goofy romantic, tightens up his coaching style. Jimbo Fisher’s Florida State? Verdict’s still out. Lane Kiffin’s USC? Good God. Chip Kelly’s Oregon? Watch for NCAA violations. If they’re not too harsh, then yes.
Right now, it’s Nick Saban, the Hyde side of Urban Meyer, Chip Kelly and everybody else. Nebraska should take heart. No. 4 in the country is among everybody else.
My final top 25
4 Texas A&M
5 Ohio State
7 Notre Dame
9 South Carolina
10 Florida State
11 Kansas State
18 Utah State
20 Penn State
24 Oregon State
25 San Jose State