What It's Like Playing Against The Alabama Machine When You Have No Chance Of Winning

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The clock showed zeroes, and the usual halftime scurrying — the band in one direction, players in another, TV folks and other game officials trying to do their jobs while avoiding the fracas — had begun.

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Alabama led Kent State, 41-0, and none of the listed 101,821 in attendance (although it was likely a couple people fewer than that) were surprised.

Among those hustling to the locker room was Kent State coach Paul Haynes, and right behind him was Jacob Pavilack, the sideline reporter on Kent State’s radio broadcast. Pavilack, doing what sideline reporters do, caught up to Haynes and asked for the coach’s thoughts on the first half.

“We’re playing the No. 1 team in the country,” Haynes told him.

That answered any potential follow-ups, too.

Halftime is a strange place to start telling a story about a football game, but this is a story about a very strange football game. Alabama, ranked exactly where Haynes had said Alabama was ranked, was hosting Kent State, which two weeks earlier had lost a home game to North Carolina A&T.

Alabama, winners of four of the last seven national championships, hosted a team that’s won four games since Thanksgiving Weekend of 2014 — and just two of those four were against FBS opponents.

Haynes had promised that his team had practiced and studied and gone through the paces for this game like it had for any other, that nothing changed about the routine or details and his players — he told all of them who’d brought a helmet that they’d get in the game — would compete from the first snap to the last.

How do you prepare for a game you have no chance to win? That’s a heck of a question. Part of Haynes’ answer was to embrace it.

“They don’t have a lot of weaknesses,” Haynes said last week, about 24 hours into his film study of Alabama’s first three games. “And if you’re trying to pick one out, you sit there and watch it again and again and realize it’s not a weakness. They’re the defending champs for a reason. They’re No. 1 in the country for a reason.

“We can analyze them all we want, man. They’re a machine.”

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Following the script, The Machine got the ball first and scored first.

On Kent State’s first play from scrimmage on the ensuing drive, freshman tailback Justin Rankin burst through a seam on the right side and found daylight up the sideline, gaining 47 yards. That series ended in a missed field goal, though, and it would be a long time before the visiting team threatened again.

When Alabama’s Xavian Marks took off for a 75-yard touchdown against Kent State’s overworked punt team late in the first half to make it 41-0, the ESPNU broadcast pointed out that Marks’ return was Alabama’s 16th non-offensive touchdown since the start of the 2015 season. Kent State has scored 22 touchdowns total in that span.

At halftime, Kent State had 53 total yards. Alabama had 352.

The Crimson Tide also put up touchdowns the second and third times they had the ball. They got field goals on their fourth and fifth series and a touchdown on their sixth before Kent State forced a punt.

The final score was 48-0.

Kent State missed a field goal following Rankin’s run on the first drive, and had a first and goal situation in the fourth quarter that ended with backup quarterback George Bollas scrambling for what was initially called a touchdown on fourth down. The play didn’t survive replay review, though, and the Tide pitched another shutout, the 17th of the Nick Saban Era at Alabama.

Saban is a Kent State alum. He was a defensive back on a Mid-American Conference championship team in 1972, which was Kent State’s last MAC title. Though Saban wouldn’t say it directly last week — shocking, right? — he was the driving force behind getting Kent State to come to Alabama in 2011 and again last weekend. Alabama pays opponents to come to Bryant-Denny Stadium for early-season maulings, and for this game Kent State was paid $1.5 million.

No one expected Saban’s generosity to include Saturday’s four quarters.

Some call them “buy” games. Some call them survival games. Considering Kent State spent around $26 million in the 2014-15 school year on 18 sports, $1.5 million is a whole bunch of money.

Last February, the Tuscaloosa News reported Alabama’s football program made a profit of more than $46 million during last year’s national championship season, which was down nearly $7 million from the previous year. Saban himself made almost $8 million in 2015.

It’s a machine.

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***

A staged squashing became a real squashing in the second quarter when Kent State quarterback Mylik Mitchell was attempting to pass with Alabama defenders Minkah Fitzpatrick and Tim Williams, among others, closing quickly.

Mitchell got rid of the ball, but came up in serious pain. Haynes thinks someone landed on Mitchell’s right (non-throwing) wrist, and 48 hours later, the fear was that Mitchell had suffered a broken wrist and would miss the season.

By Monday morning, he’d already been removed from Kent State’s depth chart for its next game vs. backyard rival Akron. Mitchell started the season second on the quarterback depth chart, and with eight games remaining, the Golden Flashes have already lost their top two quarterbacks for the season to injury, taking after the bad luck Cleveland Browns up the road. Senior Colin Reardon, who had moved to tight end/wide receiver in the offseason, has moved back to quarterback.

There’s a great college lesson that doesn’t always come with a $1.5 million payday: It’s not always Saturday that provides the headache. But Saturday can lead to one hell of a hangover.

Haynes said he woke up Sunday morning feeling disappointed “in a few plays” and with having lost a second quarterback to injury, but “feeling good” about his team. He said his players competed, prepared themselves well and had an “eye-opening” experience that included visiting the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and getting to play The Machine in front of more than an announced 100,000-plus fans.

“They have horses up front, on both sides of the ball,” Haynes said. “If they want to sit there and pound you, they can.”

“Kent State or whoever,” Haynes continued, “they do what they do. To everybody.”

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***

The Golden Flashes opened the season at Penn State in front of more than 94,000 fans. Their listed attendance for home games vs. North Carolina A&T and Monmouth in the two following weeks was a combined 28,000.

The way Haynes saw it, if his players were caught up in “outside stuff” — like Alabama’s ranking, or the crowd, or that Kent State was getting a rare national TV game — they’d be defeated before the game kicked off. When ESPNU play-by-play man Tom Hart suggested that playing in front of a wild and loud crowd at Penn State in the opener prepared Kent State for what it saw in Tuscaloosa, former Heisman Trophy winner Andre Ware, working as the game analyst, basically did everything he could to not laugh.

“Penn State doesn’t have athletes like that,” Ware said.

To Kent State’s credit, there was no crazy talk about taking down Alabama or proving some other kind of point in the days leading up to the game. Haynes went with standard but measured coachspeak, talking about evaluation and approach and poise. At 10-29 in his fourth season as head coach, Haynes knows the realities of his job and knows he needs some wins in October and November. He knew he wasn’t getting one on Sept. 24.

As Kent State defensive coordinator Ben Needham, the youngest defensive coordinator in FBS football, said last week: “We won’t come in scared. They’re scary good, they’re balanced and they don’t have many weaknesses. But we’re ready to measure ourselves. Our guys have been focused. They’re excited to go and play.

“It will be a positive if we play well. The score will be what it will be.”

Most figured it would be about 48-0.

Perhaps no comparison explains the differing galaxies in which the Kent State and Alabama programs operate than this: Since the start of the 2015 season, Alabama is 3-0 in games played in AT&T Stadium, the adult playground opened by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones in 2009.

The trip to Alabama was Kent State’s only plane trip of the season. The Golden Flashes travel by bus to each of their other five road games.

At least publicly, Haynes had no gripes that the Mid-American Conference had scheduled the Akron game the week after Alabama. In fact, he used it as a bit of a rallying cry in a Monday morning team meeting. There would be no time, he said, for lamenting the loss of another quarterback or looking back at what had happened in Tuscaloosa.

Kent State vs. Akron isn’t Auburn taking on Alabama — except to Kent State and Akron.

“It’s next man up,” Haynes told his team Monday morning. “Let’s get ready to roll.”

Zac Jackson is a writer for ProFootballTalk, and a veteran of FOX Sports Ohio. A Northeast Ohioan (and MAC expert) by trade and voice, he also co-hosts the A To Z Podcast with Andre Knott. He can often be found at Swenson’s, but can you blame him?