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Alabama Football is in the Midst of a Golden Age

In the midst of another savage Alabama beat down, of another overmatched SEC opponent on Saturday night, ESPN broadcaster Brad Nessler said something which I found to be pretty funny, even if he didn’t necessarily intend it to be. The comment came in the middle of the third quarter, with the Crimson Tide comfortably ahead Tennessee 23-10, when Nessler told broadcast partner Todd Blackledge the following:

“You know, this is getting to be danger time for Tennessee here. If they’re not careful, this one might get away from them.”

Whether Nessler was trying to be funny or not only he knows. But the comment certainly was ironic, if only because for him to say the game “could get away” from Tennessee, was to imply that at some point they actually had a chance to win it. They didn’t. Not in 2012. Not in the sport of football. Not against the Alabama Crimson Tide.

And really, that last paragraph isn’t a knock on Tennessee, as much as it is just a statement on where the Alabama football program is right now. On Saturday the Vols were just the latest in a long line of nameless, faceless opponents left in the wake of an Alabama seek-and-destroy mission, one whose only intention is to lay waste to the rest of the college football world. At this point the Crimson Tide are a real-life version of Lenny from the book “Of Mice and Men”; they’re simply too big, too strong and too powerful for anyone else to handle.

 

And as I was left surveying that landscape on Saturday night, it led me to one simple conclusion: We are currently in the midst of a Golden Age of Alabama football right now, the likes of which we may never see from any team, ever again.

 

Looking at the numbers that really is the only conclusion we can draw.

After winning their second title in three years this past January, the company line from Nick Saban was that his graduating seniors had set the standard for the program, and the expectation going forward. On the podium with Chris Folwer, Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit following the BCS title game, Saban shared his senior’s staggering resume which included a record of 48-6 with two National Championships in their four years on campus, numbers even more impressive when you remember they did it in the toughest division, in the toughest conference in college football. What’s even crazier is that since the 2008 season, Alabama’s “worst” season came in 2010, when the Tide (which spent six weeks ranked as the No. 1 team in the country, by the way) “only” won 10 games. That’s right, only at Alabama could a 10-win campaign be considered a “down” year. At most other schools the coach would beg, borrow and cut off an appendage just to get to eight or nine (yes, I’m looking at you Derek Dooley).

And when you add in a 7-0 start to begin this season, it now means that since the beginning of 2008 the Crimson Tide are 55-6, giving them a staggering 90 percent winning percentage over that stretch as well. Not too shabby, but in a lot of ways not even totally indicative of how good Alabama has been over that stretch.

It’s also not indicative of the scariest part of these last few years at Alabama.  That part? Only now is Alabama starting to hit its stride as a program.

No, I’m being serious.

Look, as good as Alabama was in those first few years of the Saban era, there were some minor glitches. Forget those rare occasions when the Crimson Tide lost games, and just remember that in 2008, 2009 and 2010 there were a handful of times when opponents actually had the audacity to play Alabama close as well. Off the top of my head, I remember that the Crimson Tide needed Terrence Cody to block a field goal to beat Tennessee in 2009, and Greg McElroy to engineer “The Drive” against Auburn as well. The nerve of those two schools for putting up a fight against Alabama!

Those games also got me thinking though, and made me wonder: Outside the LSU loss last year, when was the last time anyone even played Alabama tough? Frankly, it’s been awhile.

That’s right, we all know that Alabama’s only loss the last two seasons came against the No. 1 team in the country in 2011, by a field goal in overtime. We also know that the Crimson Tide haven’t lost a single game this season either. But what I bet you don’t know is just how dominating Alabama has been over that stretch as well.

If you don’t, I hope you’re sitting down. Because to be blunt, the numbers I’m about to drop in the next few paragraphs are going to overwhelm you.

Let’s start on January 1, 2011, at the Capital One Bowl against Michigan State, in a game which many Crimson Tide fans point to as the unofficial pre-launch party to the 2011 title run. On that afternoon, Alabama violated an 11-win Michigan State team in a way that no football team should violate another, in a 49-3 victory.

Including that game, here are the numbers since for the Tide:

Since January 1, 2011, Alabama’s record is 20-1, with the only loss to LSU, again by a field goal, again in overtime. During that stretch, Alabama has won those 20 games by an AVERAGE of 30 points per game, and of those 20 wins, ALL 20 of them have come by double-digits. In that stretch Alabama has also gone 7-1 against ranked opponents, including a 24-point beat down of an Arkansas club which many believed to be the third best team in college football, and a 21-point revenge victory against LSU in the BCS title game.

While we’re here, let’s go ahead and take this thing one step further. During this 21-game stretch the narrowest margin of victory for Alabama was a 27-11 at Penn State in September 2011, a win which wasn’t all that close when you remember that Penn State scored their only touchdown of the game with just 1:53 left in the fourth quarter. As a matter of fact, looking at Saturday’s Tennessee game in a vacuum, the Vols actually played Alabama pretty tough relative to everyone else over the last few seasons; Tennessee scored 10 points in the first half Saturday. It was the first time since November 19 of last year the Crimson Tide have allowed a team to score double figures in one half.

Of course as overwhelming as those numbers are, there are some fun facts which make them even more staggering. Like the fact that last year’s 12-1 title run came after Alabama lost four players in the first round of the previous spring’s NFL Draft (Mark Ingram, Julio Jones, James Carpenter and Marcell Dareus), including three who left school early and could’ve conceivably been part of the 2011 title team. For most college football teams losing four first round NFL Draft picks would be a death blow to their program; for Alabama, it was a prelude to a championship. And to be blunt, it hasn’t been all that much different in 2012 either. Alabama lost five starters in the first two rounds of the 2012 NFL Draft (Trent Richardson, Dre Kirkpatrick, Dont’a Hightower, Mark Barron and Courtney Upshaw) and still hasn’t missed a beat on their way to a 7-0 start this fall.

While we’re here, this also might be a nice time to mention the Tide aren’t just losing elite players, but coaches too. Once the confetti hit the floor of the Superdome last January, Jim McElwain was off to be head coach of Colorado State and Sal Sunseri skipped town to coach Tennessee’s defense, yet Alabama still keeps going strong. Regardless, I guess it’s safe to say that when people mention “Alabama doesn’t rebuild, they reload,” not only is that a factually correct statement, it also applies to the coaches on the sidelines as well as the players on the field.

And truthfully, that might be the most impressive thing about this whole Alabama run. We’ve always heard that part of Nick Saban’s “Process” is having the next guy ready to step up when the previous one leaves town, only the 2012 Crimson Tide is a living, breathing embodiment of it. Trent Richardson went pro and Eddie Lacy was ready to go. Mark Barron graduated and Robert Lester became the leader of the secondary. Jim McElwain took a head coaching job and somehow Doug Nussmeier has this offense performing better than ever. With Nick Saban and Alabama, the names change, but the results do not. The Crimson express just keeps just chugging along, with wins- and big wins- the only expectation at this point.

Even still, I’d be lying if I saw this 2012 run coming, because, umm I didn’t. Yes, I knew the Tide would be good this season, and like pretty much everyone else had them somewhere ranked in my Top 5 in the preseason. At the same time, to be totally transparent I picked LSU to beat Oregon for the 2012 BCS title back in August. Even after Tyrann Mathieu got booted from Baton Rouge, I stuck by the pick.

Woops. Through eight weeks of the college football season it’s safe to assume that not only was I wrong, but I was wrong in the most obvious way possible. Not only is Alabama good, but they’re the clear-cut, no doubt about it No. 1 team in the country.

Moving forward, I can’t help but add one more “big picture” thought. That thought? Watching Alabama on Saturday night, I can’t think of one apparent weakness this team has. In the past there were always concerns at quarterback or in the secondary, with depth or experience. In 2012, Alabama seems to not only be above average, but elite in every way a football team can be.

Again, I know it seems crazy, only it’s true. Which is crazy, since it was only about two months ago that we as fans still had plenty of concerns about the 2012 Crimson Tide. They ranged from how A.J. McCarron would develop under new offensive staff, to how Saban planned to remake a secondary which lost three starters, but as recently as August of this year the only certainty about this team was the strength of the offensive line, and that Alabama would likely be able to move the ball against anyone. That’s it.

That’s also what makes the emergence of the Crimson Tide as the no doubt about it, No. 1 team in the country all the more impressive.

In no particular order, here’s what we’ve learned about the 2012 Alabama Crimson Tide:

- Nick Saban has let A.J. McCarron loose, and in the process, McCarron has become arguably the best quarterback in the SEC. Sure Johnny Manziel has better stats, Jeff Driskel is flashier and Tyler Bray and Tyler Wilson may have better pro futures. But if you had to win one game tomorrow, how could you argue for anyone other than McCarron at this point?

You really can’t, and just about the only other quarterback you could make a case for is Aaron Murray. At the same time let’s remember that Murray has the same number of touchdown passes this year as McCarron (16), a lower completion percentage (65 percent compared to McCarron’s 68 percent) and one loss on his resume, while McCarron has none.

Not to mention that Murray has also thrown four interceptions in 2012, which just so happens to be four more than McCarron has. That’s right, not only is McCarron almost certain to break the Alabama single-season touchdown record of 20, but through half the season he has yet to turn the ball over once! Yo!

Staying with the 2012 season…

- After losing their top four receivers off last year’s team (Marquis Maze, Darius Hanks, Richardson and Brad Smelley) and an All-American running back (Richardson) too, many wondered how Alabama would replace them as well. Apparently the Crimson Tide are just fine, and the scary part is that they should be fine well into the future too. As things stand, Alabama’s leading receiver (Amari Cooper) and most dynamic runner (T.J. Yeldon) happen to be freshmen. True, freshmen. Double Yo!

- And finally, after losing seven starters from college football’s No. 1 ranked defense in 2011, the 2012 Alabama is ranked… wait for it… No. 1 in the country. This is a stat which surprises no one at this point.

As for the particulars, the 2012 Crimson Tide are basically giving up the same number of points as last year (8.3 in 2012 compared to 8.2 in 2011), a few more yards per game (195 compared to 183 last year) and are also ranked No. 1 in college football in both run defense (72 yards per game allowed) and pass defense too (111 yards per game).

Speaking of that pass defense, remember when the secondary was supposed to be the weakness of the team? Yeah, well through seven games this season, Alabama has 13 interceptions. That number is not only tied for the third best total in college football, but just so happens to be the same number that the Crimson Tide secondary had the entire 2011 season.

Now granted, those numbers are likely to change with Alabama set to enter the toughest part of their schedule. In the coming three weeks Alabama will play Mississippi State, at LSU and Texas A&M, three teams which are all ranked in latest AP Poll and have a combined 19-3 record. Even if the Tide are to somehow survive that brutal stretch, they’d still face a Top 10 team (either Georgia or Florida) in the SEC title game, and could face any number of quality teams to play for the 2013 BCS title.

The point being, it’s way too early for anyone to mark down Alabama for another undefeated season or a second straight BCS title. That’s all in the very distant future.

At the same time, whether Alabama ends up with hoisting the crystal ball in Miami or not, isn’t it incredible that they’re even in the discussion at this point? Heck, isn’t it amazing that through two-thirds of the college football season they’re ranked No. 1 at all? To be blunt, isn’t it crazy that the Crimson Tide are this good, after losing all that damn talent these last few years? Maybe it shouldn’t be. But it is to me.

To sum it all up as best I can, I will go back to Saturday night, and to a text which came across my phone at 9:48 EST time. It came just a few moments after Nessler made the comments which opened this article, and came with Alabama up 30-10 late in the third quarter. It came after Robert Lester picked off a Tyler Bray pass which unofficially ended the game. And it came from an Alabama fan.

The text read:

“Is this team for real?”

Hmm, good question.

At this point I’m not totally sure.

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About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.

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