This is the reality with which Alabama lives: A 25-point neutral-site victory over the team projected to finish second in the ACC Coastal Division is now seen as unsatisfying. There was never a chance the Tide would lose to Virginia Tech on Saturday in the Georgia Dome – Bama took a lasting lead before its offense took a snap – but the expected domination went missing.
And make no mistake: Domination is what we expect from Alabama every game now. Yes, it’s unfair. But that’s the standard Bama has set for itself. It’s not just a very good team; it’s the only team that matters.
Alabama had to settle for being pretty good Saturday night in the Georgia Dome, pretty good as opposed to being the greatest team ever assembled. Virginia Tech clamped down on the Tide’s offense, which is more than Notre Dame (against which Bama managed 529 yards) or Georgia (512 yards) did at the shank of last season.
Alabama actually got outgained by Virginia Tech, which managed only 212 yards. The Tide had but 206 and made 11 first downs. “We are not blocking them up front at all,” coach Nick Saban said at the half, according to a statement released by Alabama, and this wasn’t an utter shock. Bama lost three starting offensive linemen and its tight end, all of whom made NFL rosters.
“I don’t think you can just talk about the inexperienced guys not playing well,” Saban said afterward. “The entire line did not play well … They outplayed us up front, to tell you the truth.”
The result was that Alabama’s splendid skilled players showed little of their skills. AJ McCarron, the quarterback with the famous girlfriend, completed 10 of 23 passes for 110 yards, was sacked four times and threw an interception. T.J. Yeldon, the latest in the grand line of Bama tailbacks, gained 75 yards on 17 carries. (He’d had 153 on 25 against Georgia.) Amari Cooper, who caught the winning touchdown in the SEC championship game, had four catches for 38 yards.
Bama, however, isn’t to be confused with one of those good-hit-no-pitch Big 12 assemblages. It could have won this game without gaining a yard. Christion Jones ran back a punt and a kickoff for first-half touchdowns. (He also caught a second-half touchdown pass.) Safety Vinnie Sunseri returned an interception to score. This game was reminiscent of the 2011 SEC title tilt, in which LSU beat Georgia 42-10 despite not making a first down before halftime.
Those Tigers would ultimately lose the national championship to Alabama because they couldn’t gain a yard against a big-time defense when it mattered. The 2013 Tide won’t be that imbalanced – McCarron and Yeldon and Cooper are too gifted to hold down forever – but those looking for a reason why Alabama might not win a third consecutive BCS title (and a fourth in five years) will surely hitch their hopes to the coughs emitted in Week 1.
As fate and the SEC scheduler would have it, the Tide’s biggest test stands to arrive when next it plays – on Sept. 14 against Texas A&M in College Station. Alabama will have to score more than two offensive touchdowns to beat Johnny Manziel, provided he doesn’t get himself suspended or ejected or otherwise chastised. Nothing Bama did against Virginia Tech suggests that the Aggies won’t stand a real chance.
But here we note: Alabama has an off-week before it plays A&M, and the great Saban has been handed a gunny sack full of teaching tools. Nothing sets the emperor’s teeth to grinding the way an inability to run the ball does. “We need to be a little more relentless as competitors,” he said.
Also this: “I don’t think anybody in our locker room is satisfied with the way we played.”
And this: “We have to create an identity as a team. I don’t think we did that in all phases of the game. But we know who we are and what we need to do.”
It’s no longer enough for Alabama to be a good college team. It measures itself only in championships. Saban said he’d showed his players the clip of Michael Jordan in Game 6 against Utah in 1998 – the greatest player ever made a basket, made a steal and then hit the title-winning shot over Bryon Russell. “That was his sixth championship,” Saban said, “and he was playing like it was his first.”
There’s another team that keeps winning championships and is driven by an unrelenting leader. That team is the one that beat Virginia Tech 35-10. Except for the final score, there was nothing remarkable about Alabama this night, which was the truly remarkable part.