TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — On a day in the Southeastern Conference when the sun rose in the west and Rottweilers hid from tabby kittens, the No. 1 team in the nation had to set the world back on its axis and restore some sanity to college football.
Bret Bielema and Arkansas had to like their chances against Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide if for no other reason than the rash of SEC upsets prior to kickoff. Before the Alabama band played the last notes of the National Anthem, unranked Vanderbilt had beaten No. 15 Georgia 31-27, Tennessee had upset No. 11 South Carolina 23-21, and No. 14 Missouri, playing without their star quarterback James Franklin, had their way with No. 22 Florida 36-17.
A few minutes later, as A.J. McCarron was orchestrating the Crimson Tide’s opening drive, 24th-ranked Auburn, largely overlooked in the SEC race, upset Johnny Manziel and his No. 7 Texas A&M Aggies 45-41. Then Ole Miss jumped out to an early 10-0 lead over No.6 LSU.
That had to boost the Razorbacks’ spirits. With the upset stars so perfectly aligned, surely Bielema’s run-centered Razorbacks could join the party.
Alabama squashed that pipedream before thousands of fans at Bryant-Denny Stadium could find their seats. The Tide scored touchdowns on their first two possessions, going up 14-0 in the first 10 minutes of the game and adding two more scores before the end of the first half. A minute and half into the third quarter, McCarron threw this third touchdown pass of the night and the rout was on.
The final score was 52-0 only because Saban cleared the bench and played subs for the final quarter and a half. If they had been so inclined, the Tide could have won this one by 100. In the process, not only did Alabama put a halt to the upset madness, the team looked unbeatable, moving the ball at will and demoralizing the Razorbacks with their swarming defense. It was 42-0 at the eight-minute mark of the third quarter, and before the beginning of the fourth the Arkansas cheering section was virtually empty. Even the Razorback band looked like they would have rather been somewhere else.
McCarron completed 15 passes for 180 yards and three touchdowns in a little over two quarters of work, while six different Alabama running backs contributed for a total of 352 yards on the ground. Freshman Derrick Henry led the Tide with 111 yards rushing, almost all of those coming on one 80-yard run in the fourth quarter for his first college touchdown. Kenyon Drake also rushed for over 100 yards, while the starter, T.J. Yeldon, finished the night with 88.
Arkansas could do nothing. The Razorbacks finished with 91 yards in the air and 165 on the ground, but most of those came after the game was out of reach. At the end of the first quarter Bielema’s offense had 33 total yards. At halftime, trailing by 28, they had 137 yards with only 63 of those coming from their supposedly prolific running game.
It was as thorough a thumping as any SEC team has taken all year. And it begged a question that will be asked by everyone in college football in the coming days. Even if the rest of the conference isn’t as great as it has been in the past, can anybody beat Alabama?
Given the progress the team has made since opening week, the answer appears to be, no. Not since the Howard Schnellenberger-Jimmy Johnson era at Miami has a program consistently fielded so much future NFL talent and been so dominant at almost every position. Amari Cooper looks every bit as good as Atlanta Falcons receiver Julio Jones. C.J. Mosely could well be better than Baltimore Ravens linebacker Dont’a Hightower. T.J. Yeldon looks faster and more versatile than Indianapolis Colts runner Trent Richardson, who was arguably better than Saints’ running back Mark Ingram, who happened to win a Heisman trophy.
And Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who came off his two-game suspension to break up numerous Brandon Allen passes and log one interception, is likely to be the first safety taken in the NFL draft.
Early season concerns about losing the bulk of last year’s dominant offensive line seem almost laughable now. Granted the offense sputtered in the season-opener against Virginia Tech, but since that outing the Tide has averaged 502.8 yards of offense and 42 points per game. Their average margin of victory is 31 points.
“I’m very proud of the way our guys competed, the progress we’re making and the balance that we showed,” Saban said afterward. “But I don’t believe we’ve played our best game yet.”
He was serious, which should send chills down the spines of every coach and player left on the Alabama schedule.
Next up is Tennessee, a team that lost a heartbreaker to Georgia in overtime before upsetting South Carolina. Butch Jones will certainly have his team ready. They will believe, just as Bielema had the Razorbacks convinced that they could win. But unless the world turns upside down two weeks in a row, Alabama should have its way with the Vols by two or three touchdowns.
No one would have guessed that Missouri would be undefeated and hold a two-game lead in the SEC East in late October, just as very few could have predicted Georgia’s freefall or Ole Miss’s 27-24 upset over LSU on a last-second field goal, a game that concluded at the same moment Saban was stepping up to the podium for his post-game press conference.
But one thing seems to be as constant as fall following summer and night following day. The Tide continues to roll. And no one appears close to stopping them.