TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – There's a number that carries weight all over Tuscaloosa: 14. As in 14 National Championships. As in, this is the only acceptable ending to any Alabama football season.
You see the 14 years of the championship seasons everywhere. On store windows along The Strip near campus. On posters in bars and restaurants. On bumper stickers slapped on every single possible model of burgundy-colored car you could imagine. And inside Bryant-Denny Stadium, those numbers loom large over every play.
It's too early to say that the 2012 Crimson Tide will add to that legacy, but right now nobody this side of Oregon looks anywhere close to ready to run with Alabama. On Saturday night, No. 11 Mississippi State came to Tuscaloosa, posing the first serious challenge to the top-ranked Crimson Tide since a clearly-overrated Michigan team in the season opener.
It wasn't even close. Alabama scored on its first drive and didn't bother looking back en route to a 38-7 win. The game, never really in doubt, was downright Seussian: They beat you on the ground. They beat you in the air. That Alabama Crimson Tide, they beat you everywhere.
Alabama was favored by 24 points and had that spread covered by the half. All told, Alabama totaled 414 yards of offense, with quarterback AJ McCarron throwing for 208 yards and two touchdowns. The defense allowed only a meaningless late-game touchdown; the highlight of its hallmark night was a Robert Lester end-zone interception that killed a 97-yard Mississippi State drive in the third quarter, effectively ending the last of the Bulldogs' faint hopes.
The victory thus establishes Alabama (8-0) as the clear favorite to take one of two slots in the BCS Championship Game in January. Certainly there are obstacles ahead, starting with LSU this coming weekend and the SEC Championship soon afterward. And as Florida demonstrated in an uncharacteristically weak loss to Georgia earlier in the day, every weekend brings the possibility of an unexpected flameout.
But then, flameouts aren't what you'd expect of a Nick Saban team, and it's certainly not what he expects of them. "It was important for us to get off to a fast start," he said after the game in a by-the-numbers press conference. "You're preparing yourself to fight a 15-round fight, knowing that you have to take the fight to them in the early rounds. You can't necessarily win the fight in the early rounds, but you can lose it."
Even with a monstrous lead, though, Saban was still stalking the sidelines, livid as he watched his second team struggle.
"I got upset with the backup players, because they're better than that," Saban said without even being asked a question. "I expect them to have poise and confidence and do their jobs. It's not about shutting [Mississippi State] out; it's about playing their best football."
"It's all about execution," Lester said afterward. "We want to execute to the best of our ability for all 60 minutes, and we did that tonight."
They've done it all season. Alabama has trailed for exactly 15 seconds this year and has not allowed an opponent to score on the opening drive all year. The Tide blocked Mississippi State's field goal attempt in the first to keep that streak alive.
Indeed, aside from the second team's struggles – which only a perfectionist like Saban could find issue with – the only possible shadow on the night came when McCarron sustained a back contusion on a sack. But McCarron could have gone back in if needed, Saban said, and should be in perfect health for next weekend's game in Baton Rouge.
With a victory over the Tigers, Alabama would clinch the SEC West and begin making its reservations for the SEC title game, where it would play either Florida or Georgia. Assuming Alabama wins its three post-LSU games (against Texas A&M, Western Carolina and Auburn) the Tide would thus roll into the SEC championship undefeated and with the opportunity to defend its national championship. And that would give Saban a chance to do what no other Alabama coach, not even Bear Bryant, could do: win three titles in four years.
That's still a long way off, even with Alabama beating its opponents by an average of 30 points. Yes, 14 is still the number in Tuscaloosa, but for how much longer?
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