TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — For a brief moment, forget about the Crimson Tide’s quest for four national titles in five seasons.
Forget about their bid for an unprecedented third straight BCS national championship.
Forget about the SEC’s dynastic run of seven consecutive BCS national championships — with No. 8 being eminently plausible, thanks to Alabama or Missouri.
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Top-ranked Alabama was so thorough, so relentless in its 45-10 thumping of Tennessee on Saturday, it’s now fair to wonder if the Crimson Tide could compete — for 60 minutes — with a bottom-feeder NFL team, especially one that lacks stability at quarterback.
These once-preposterous thoughts occupied a writer’s mind during this one-sided affair, the result of being awestruck by the Crimson Tide’s five-TD barrage in the first half — capped by Landon Collins’ 89-yard pick-six.
Obviously, history is full of great college players having little or no impact at the pro level.
But rhetorically speaking, could the Crimson Tide, as a team-focused, disciplined collection of prep All-Americans and redoubtable pro prospects — under the watchful eyes of head coach Nick Saban, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, et al — hold their own against a middling pro team?
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Alabama opened with a flurry against Tennessee (4-4, 1-3 in SEC action), posting touchdown drives of 51, 66, 66 and 81 yards in its first four possessions.
The first score occurred on a seemingly innocent sideline pass from AJ McCarron to Amari Cooper, who evaded one would-be tackler and glided past the other Vols for a 54-yard TD.
Roughly five minutes later, ‘Bama back T.J. Yeldon (101 total yards, three TDs) punctuated a drive with a 1-yard TD scamper — a fitting end for someone who had logged all five carries during the possession.
And when Kevin Norwood hauled in a 22-yard touchdown catch from McCarron — capping a 12-play, 66-yard scoring drive — this SEC clash had suddenly become academic. Alabama had an easy 21-point advantage on a club that knocked off No. 11 South Carolina just seven days prior.
“I was concerned we’d come out a little flat today, but we really came out well on offense,” said coach Saban, whose Crimson Tide have now won 12 straight. “I think there was a great opportunity to control the tempo of the game on offense … the guys made some big plays.”
Saban could have been referring to any number of seminal moments on this day, from Cooper’s long TD catch/run or Collins’ leaping INT/pick-six run … to Norwood’s absurd 34-yard catch at the Tennessee 6 — a leaping, backward-tumble grab along the Alabama sidelines.
Asked about the offense playing a complementary role to the defense, in terms of “identity,” Saban formed an all-encompassing response.
“We want our identity to be that every guy is going to dominate his phase of his position,” said Saban, including the runners, passers, blockers, defenders and special teamers in that philosophy. “We keep emphasizing (playing) ’60 minutes,’ that’s what we try to get our players to buy into.
“And for the last month, they’ve done that.”
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From the Vols’ perspective, there weren’t a lot of positives to celebrate, after tailback Rajion Neal’s solid effort (83 total yards, one TD), freshman receiver Marquez North’s team highs of four catches and 87 yards, along with flashes of promise from backup QB Joshua Dobbs (75 yards passing), who orchestrated both Tennessee scoring drives.
A gifted runner and strong-armed passer, Dobbs proved to be a handful for the Tide defense — albeit during the proverbial garbage time of the second half.
As a group, the Tennessee offense generated only 14 first downs and 322 total yards.
Another plus: The UT offensive line didn’t allow a sack on Saturday, but that was only a consolation prize to Antonio “Tiny” Richardson, a high-end tackle prospect for the NFL, either in 2014 or ’15.
“We felt like (the intensity) was there, offensively and defensively. We just didn’t execute,” lamented Richardson, as a guest on the Vols’ post-game radio show. “(The offensive line needs) to be really critical of ourselves, and help the young guys make plays.”
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The talent composition and track record of the 2013 Crimson Tide certainly bears the look of a college team for the ages.
**On its active roster, Alabama boasts eight running backs (T.J. Yeldon, Kenyan Drake, Jalston Fowler, Dee Hart, Derrick Henry, Alvin Kamara, Tyren Jones, Altee Tenpenny) who were either prep All-Americans or four- or five-star recruits in high school.
(In most cases, a four-star recruit covers the top 300 for a particular class and possesses down-the-road NFL potential.)
**Heading into Saturday, Alabama had notched 19 touchdown drives of under three minutes, a figure that’s in the ballpark with up-tempo teams Missouri (27 — entering Saturday), Florida State (25) and Ohio State (24).
(In case you’re wondering, Oregon has amazingly produced 48 TD drives in 2:59 or less, prior to the UCLA clash.)
**Of their last six games, the Crimson Tide have yielded only 26 points. By comparison, no Alabama defense has eclipsed that six-game output since 1975 (20 points allowed from games 2-7).
The 1979 and ’80 squads also had 26, respectively.
To draw an NFL parallel, we’re essentially looking at the 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers. In their final nine regular-season games — all victories — the famed Steel Curtain defense surrendered a total of 28 points (or 3.1 per game), a ferocious, awe-inspiring run that included three consecutive shutouts (an NFL record).
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For coach Butch Jones, the Volunteers’ Year 1 goals are easy to conceive — but not necessarily simple to execute:
**Get one or two tent-pole victories (read: upsets) **Take the rivalry games you’re supposed to win **Stay competitive in the rivalry outings you’re supposed to lose
Oh, and hold your players, coaches, fans and hands-on alums — young and old — to a new standard of excellence, systematically boosting morale on a micro level … while taking a bold macro view to crucial components, like scheduling.
For example, it’s Oct. 26, and Tennessee has already made visits to Oregon, Florida and Alabama, with home tilts against Western Kentucky, Georgia and South Carolina sprinkled into the mix.
For most coaches, that’s not a recipe for instant success when taking over a proud, but struggling program. (The recently departed Derek Dooley’s three-year record in Knoxville: 15-21 overall, 4-19 in SEC play.)
But Jones, and whoever scheduled Oregon for Sept. 14, knowing full well Florida would show up the following week, apparently love the upside of playing the nation’s best teams in clusters.
They see the long-term benefits of getting exposure with up-tempo, high-octane offenses one Saturday … and stifling, physical defenses the next.
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In the post-game presser, an intrepid reporter casually mentioned to Saban how one fan had a sign that read, We’ll stay for 60, if you stay forever.
That prompted an aw-shucks response from Saban: “Sounds good to me.”
He then added: “I’m not really at a stage where I’m looking for other opportunities … we’ve got enough challenges here.”
Next up for the Tide: A home date with LSU in two weeks.
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How well have things been progressing for Alabama lately? During the debut launch of last week’s BCS standings, the Tide’s No. 1 ranking took a distant fourth, attention-wise, to more pressing topics, such as:
1. Pundits crunching rest-of-season numbers for Florida State (No. 2 in the BCS) and Oregon (No. 3) — on the assumption both schools would sweep through their schedules, unfettered.
2. The Alabama students getting scolded for leaving blowouts too early, an occurrence that could affect the recruitment of another blue-chip athlete.
3. After surrendering just 16 points over a five-game victory span of Colorado State, Ole Miss, Georgia State, Kentucky and Arkansas (Sept. 21 to Oct. 19), Alabama had jumped into the short-list conversation of college footballs greatest defenses of all time — featuring the 1971 and ’72 Cornhuskers, 1991 Miami Hurricanes, 1992 Crimson Tide, 2003 LSU Tigers and 2011 Crimson Tide.
(For those scoring at home, three of the above have Saban ties.)
And fair or not, pounding a young Tennessee team hardly moves the national meter, good or bad.
Factoring in its unbeaten record, lofty place in the country’s top-ranked conference and pursuit of a third straight national title, Alabama (8-0, 5-0) simply needs to keep winning to ensure a spot in the BCS title game — regardless of how Florida State or Oregon fare from this point forward.
These are the spoils of a juggernaut program that has the luxury of controlling its own destiny.