The word “destiny” gets booted around a lot in college sports, usually by fans who wish to ascribe some mystical other-worldliness to their teams’ winning season.
This is happening quite a bit now with Alabama, especially after winning a game last Saturday on the scoreboard that the Tide lost almost everywhere else on the field.
There weren’t a lot of statistical high points in Alabama’s win over LSU. The Tigers outgained the Tide in the air, on the ground, and off special teams. They won the time of possession and turnover battles. LSU ran more plays, completed more passes, averaged more yards per pass, and converted ten times as many third downs as Alabama.
So, how did the Tigers lose?
The Tide won because they believed they were going to win. Even though the final drive began at their own 28 with 1:48 left in the game; even tough AJ McCarron had completed only one pass for zero yards in the second half; even though LSU had beaten them in the second half in every way, every soul on the Alabama sideline thought the Tide was going to win.
And deep in the pits of their stomach, every LSU player thought the same thing.
“Coach (Saban) always talks about adversity and rising to the test when the test comes,” Tide running back Eddie Lacy said. “That’s what happened. When the bell rang, we answered it.”
“I don’t think you ever need a game like that, but you know they come,” Alabama defensive end Damian Square said. “I’ve been playing college football for a while and every year we have one like that. You never know when it’s going to show up, but coach always says to practice your best so when your best is needed, you can bring it out. And our best was needed and we brought it out.”
In many ways it is as simple as that. Even though Alabama had only trailed for 15 seconds all season leading up the game in Baton Rouge, Nick Saban and his staff had prepped them for being down late in a game.
Coaches drilled it into their heads that they would need to mount a comeback. And Saban, in his own crusty way, convinced them that they could do it.
They won because losing never occurred to them.
And LSU lost, because winning was, in their minds, always an outside shot at best.
Now, Alabama is one game away from capturing the SEC West and three wins shy of playing for a second straight national title.
“We’ve got to forget about this last game,” Saban said to a group of reporters after practice on Monday. “We’ve got to move on.”
By Monday, Saban was preaching the adversity sermon again, this time to his defensive.
“I think they have a lot of respect for this team,” Saban said of Texas A&M, the Tide’s next opponent. “It’d be pretty difficult not to respect this team based on their body of work and what they’ve accomplished this season.”
You can bet the Alabama defense is planning for the kitchen sink on Saturday, because that is what the Aggies throw at the Tide.
Shotguns, pistols, four wide, five wide, three running backs, one running back, empty back field — you name it, the Aggies will run it, and do so quickly. They average 44.7 points and 559.6 yards per game, and utilize a strike-early strategy.
In its first two drives against LSU, Texas A&M ran 24 plays in 7:39 seconds and scored twice before the Tigers knew what hit them.
That is, in part, because of the genius of coach Kevin Sumlin, who realizes that to compete against bigger, stronger opponents, his team must be quick and agile. Hit them in the mouth early, and hope they don’t recover.
It also helps that Sumlin has the best freshman quarterback in the country in Johnny Manziel, who leads the SEC in rushing and scoring and is No. 3 in passing. Like a smaller version of Cam Newton, Manziel can extend plays with his legs while keeping his eyes peeled for a receiver to come open downfield. He alone is averaging 383.2 yards of total offense for the Aggies and has passed and rushed for 31 touchdowns.
Against Mississippi State last week, Manziel ran 97 offensive plays and the Aggies racked up 693 yards of offense.
Saban likened him to Doug Flutie.
“He is a great passer, and a great runner who can keep plays alive and execute well,” Saban said shaking his head. “We have our hands full.”
But the Tide should win at home on Saturday. Not because of destiny, but because they have prepared for every detail. And they believe that they will win every play.
“We have to execute better,” Saban said. “Staying where we are is not going to cut it. We have to learn, and adapt and get better every play.”
That is what wins championships.
No mysticism, just relentless hard work and belief that the team will not fail.