No. 1 Alabama dominates once again, but starts to show cracks in its invincibility
Even amid a commanding performance, the Crimson Tide finally showed some mortality
On Saturday against Mississippi State, Alabama won. Alabama dominated. But Alabama was cut. In a season where Alabama feels like a machine and everyone else collectively feels like the scrappy underdog, the rest of the sport got its Rocky IV moment. It learned that Alabama is not a machine.
The best player in college football went down. Tua Tagovailoa, already nursing a nagging knee issue, aggravated it enough to leave the game in the second half for good. With accomplished backup Jalen Hurts already beat up, Alabama turned to its third-string quarterback Mac Jones for offense and didn't find much in in finishing off a 24-0 victory. And just like that, Alabama lost its invincibility.
That's where we are with this Alabama team: looking for cracks, looking for mortality. Nick Saban acknowledged as much in the first words of his postgame press conference.
"I think in this day and age, you not only get judged on if you win," Saban said. "You get judged on how you win."
It was an acknowledgment that for the first time all year, Alabama faced adversity. Never mind that the Crimson Tide are coming off of an emotional road victory against rival LSU. Never mind that from the first drive until the last, no one in the stadium thought that Alabama would lose to Mississippi State. If you consider yourself a national title contender or a post-season participant with Alabama on the horizon, you can look at Saturday night and mine out some optimism.
While Saban acknowledged that Tagovailoa would not have gone back in even if Alabama needed him, he also shrugged off any long-term concern when he spoke with CBS's Jamie Erdahl.
"He just got beat up a little bit," he said. "I think he's fine."
But even with Tagovailoa in, Bob Shoop's Mississippi State defense measured up to Alabama's all-star offense in a way we haven't seen yet.
In Alabama's first two drives, the Tide marched 83 and 73 yards without much of a speed bump, scoring two touchdowns in one quarter on a defense that had allowed only nine in the previous 36 quarters. But after that, Alabama didn't have another drive longer than 36 yards until the final possession of the game.
In the second half, Alabama was held to 2.9 yards per play for 89 yards and was 1-for-7 on third downs. An offense that allowed six sacks all year gave up four to that Mississippi State front led by Willie Gay, Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat.
Finally, that offense looked mortal.
That's the good news for everyone else. The bad news is that at the end of the game, the No. 16 team in the country had just gotten shut out and blown out. The bad news is that Alabama shut out back-to-back SEC opponents for the first time since 1980. The bad news is that Alabama just held an SEC offense under 200 yards for the second straight week. The bad news is that what we thought was Alabama's only question mark -- a defense just slightly less Alabama-y than usual -- is quickly becoming a strength.
So, take it how you want it. Maybe, as a beat-up quarterback room licks its wounds, this is the crack in the armor that exposes Alabama. Maybe Alabama regenerates better than ever offensively after recharging against The Citadel next weekend. Or maybe this is the adversity Alabama needs to zero in on the home stretch.
How ever you take it, nothing has changed in terms of college football's pecking order. Alabama is still the team everyone is chasing, even if it's finally showing a little blood.
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