(This article originally appeared on MrSEC.com)
Until Alabama falls to a vastly inferior opponent, they will continue to be the best team in the nation, with the best coach, ahead of the best program. And even when they do fall to a team they should handily beat, I think it’s still a tight race between Alabama and whatever other traditional powerhouse is showing its teeth that season.
What makes Alabama great is not just talent. LSU has gobs of it, USC swims in it, apparently Oregon and Ohio State pay for it… there are lots of teams with talent. College football comes down to one thing more often than anything else – the one constant in an endless turnstile of soon to be professional football stars – is your coach better than the guy on the other sideline.
Unlike Les Miles, Nick Saban has never needed luck to beat an opponent. He hasn’t needed the best player in college football history like Urban Meyer or Gene Chizik. Every so often Saban’s teams are out played, even ill-fated, never are they out-coached.
Arkansas’ is probably the one team who has a coach to come the closest. Bobby Petrino last year. Even then, in addition to poor decision making by the players, there are some play calls I think Petrino would like to have back.
What is so astonishing is not how talented Alabama is, but how bland they so often seem to be. Offensively, Mark Ingram was good, but he was maybe the 5th best running back in the SEC over the last decade? (We can have a conversation about the merits of a Heisman another time.) Greg McElroy was smart, but he was not an awe-inspiring talent. Julio Jones was amazing, but was he ever really fully deployed at Alabama?
What Alabama has done defensively has been phenomenal as a whole, but it has, much like the offense, always been a complete team effort. Dominating plays from everyone. Auburn basically won games with the spectacular play of two special players; Patrick Peterson got LSU out of a jam more than once. Arkansas’ legacy of talent essentially comes down to four players in its entire history, Matt Jones, Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Ryan Mallett.
Alabama is just Alabama. they don’t win because of overwhelming individual talent. They win by simply being dominating as a team in all phases of the game.
A lot of it comes down to Alabama’s ability to adjust to teams who surprise them on the spot. Penn St had an excellent game plan heading into last Saturday’s game and were able to score on the opening drive. Alabama looked startled and had trouble picking up first downs; their first of the game came on an optimistic spot on a risky fourth down call that seemed to spark momentum for Alabama.
From there on out it was a flurry of Alabama dominance on both sides of the football. The defense was smothering for the remainder of the game, and the offense seemed to be able to move the football in any way they wanted to. This came down to in-game adjustments which are made simpler by preparation in the offseason and every day in practice.
Alabama is the best program in the country because no one else can do what Alabama does. Talent is important, but lots of programs have talent and look lost on the field. Nick Saban built his house on solid ground. The most impressive thing about what Saban has done is that much like at LSU, the culture and system he builds at Alabama will last long after he retires, and he will retire at Alabama.
The Crimson Tide face the Razorbacks on September 24th and it will be the biggest scare Alabama has all season. If there is one guy who can best Saban in the chess match of SEC football, it’s Petrino. It’s something Petrino has yet to do. Never has Saban been outcoached by Petrino, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen. Alabama doesn’t have bad games, which means Arkansas will have to be at their best to beat the Crimson Tide. But even as someone vastly more familiar with Arkansas football than Alabama football, I have enormous doubts the Hogs will best the Tide.
We’ll see. It’s a David versus Goliath matchup… but there was a reason David won, he was smart. Don’t sleep on Petrino. The game will be one for the ages.
TJ Carpenter is host of The TJ Carpenter Show on The Hog Sports Radio Network from 1 to 4 (listen live at www.hogsportsradio.com)