More than 12 million people watched Alabama beat Florida State on Sept. 2 in the most-watched game of the 2017 college football season so far. It's hard to imagine any non-Alabama fan has watched a full Crimson Tide game since then.
It's a realization that struck after the first playoff rankings were released on Tuesday night and Alabama was ranked No. 2: I can't remember ever spending so little time thinking about the presumed national championship frontrunner for the first two months of a season.
Bama has been Bama, and it has mostly avoided doing anything interesting or unexpected in the process. It has avoided drama, won convincingly and not done anything to indicate that this regular season is different from last regular season, when it went undefeated and avoided the one thrilling loss it typically experiences. Over the past decade, Alabama has usually been the best team -- or at least one of the two or three best teams -- but it is rarely among the most exciting teams to watch. It crushes most opponents and doesn't care about looking pretty in the process. This season has somehow felt different because Bama has been both overly familiar after a decade of contending for national titles and even more dominant than usual against a weaker schedule than usual.
Alabama has a point differential of +266, its largest through the first eight games in any season of the Saban era. The 66-3 win over Ole Miss and 59-0 win over Vanderbilt stand out as two of Saban's three biggest blowout wins. The Crimson Tide have outscored opponents by an average of 33.2 points per game, and they have outscored opponents 186-26 in the first half. In fact, they haven't allowed a touchdown in the first 30 minutes of a game since Sept. 16 against Colorado State. Most weeks, Alabama wins are safely in hand before halftime ... or by the time the ball leaves the tee on the opening kickoff.
According to ESPN's win probability charts in its box scores, Alabama hasn't dipped below an 86 percent chance to win at any point in any game since the opener against Florida State, a team that was viewed much more favorably then than it is now. Alabama's win probability has stayed above 95 percent for every minute of five of eight games, and even the "close" Texas A&M game never saw Bama's win probability dip below 88.6 percent. The Crimson Tide beat the Aggies by only eight, but the result was never truly in doubt, as Alabama led by 15 with under a minute left.
There hasn't been any real doubt about Alabama winning at any moment since it forced a fumble and scored a touchdown to go ahead 21-7 with 1:41 left in the third quarter against Florida State. At that moment, its ESPN win probability against the Seminoles jumped to 94.4 percent. It's rarely dipped below that in over 436 minutes of play since then.
The above chart shows the team record, point differential, number of double-digit wins, yards per play averages on offense and defense and number of passes thrown per game in Alabama's first eight games each season under Saban.
More of the same on offense
Although there are lingering questions about the reloaded pass rush, Alabama's defense is as good as it's always expected to be. The intrigue entering this season came on offense.
Despite all of the blowouts and results that haven't been in doubt, Alabama's offense hasn't done anything out of the ordinary. It hasn't needed to, because the team is averaging 43 points per game and seven yards per play, mostly by running the ball down opponents' throats. Unlike last year, the scoring totals haven't even been boosted by non-offensive touchdowns; Alabama has zero return touchdowns on special teams and one pick-six. It had 15 non-offensive touchdowns in 15 games last year.
After the departures of both Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian, the talk of the offseason was how new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll would develop Hurts, a talented, dual-threat player who struggled to stretch the field as a passer -- which was particularly notable in the playoff games against the talented defenses of Washington and Clemson. That storyline, however, has mostly receded into the background through two months.
Hurts has been solid as a passer, ranking 25th nationally in quarterback rating, but he hasn't been asked to do much. He has completed 62.9 percent for 1,223 yards, nine TDs and one INT, and his average per attempt has risen from 7.3 to 8.1. According to cfbstats.com, Hurts has 16 completions of 20-plus yards (Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield has 46) and just six completions of 30-plus yards (Mayfield has 17). In part because there have been so many blowouts that have allowed for more snaps for true freshman Tua Tagovailoa, Hurts averages only 18.9 pass attempts per game and 5.1 attempts per second half.
What best illustrates how limited the passing game has been is that Alabama's second-leading receiver, freshman Jerry Jeudy, has just 12 catches for 208 yards, giving him an average of 1.5 catches for 26 yards per game. The Tide either pass the ball to Calvin Ridley -- frequently short passes that give Ridley a chance to make a play afterward -- or they run over and over again.
The running game, behind a dominant offensive line, is so deep that nobody is putting up superstar numbers, and thus nobody has become an attention-drawing Heisman candidate like Mark Ingram or Derrick Henry.
Bo Scarbrough was the breakout star for Alabama late last season and especially in the playoff, emerging as one of the most entertaining players in college football because of his combination of size, physicality and speed. He returned from breaking his leg in the national title game but averages a modest 4.7 yards per carry with no more than 79 rushing yards in a game. He has one run of more than 20 yards. Hurts actually leads the team with 84 rushes (although that includes sacks), and Damien Harris -- who is somehow underrated despite being a five-star recruit who has been Alabama's leading rusher for two seasons -- leads the team with 697 yards and 10 TDs.
Has Hurts improved as a passer? Can the Tide rely on weapons in the passing game beyond Ridley? We haven't found out yet … but we might not need to find out. That limited passing game last year -- which had more proven targets with Ridley joined by ArDarius Stewart and O.J. Howard -- led Alabama to within a few seconds of a 15-0 national championship season. This year's team has shown few signs of being different.
The above chart shows Alabama's schedule (with a tentative game vs. Georgia in the SEC title game) with comparisons of various team rankings: Jeff Sagarin, Sports-Reference's Simple Rating System, Football Outsiders' S&P+ and FEI and Massey composite, plus offensive and defensive yards per play.
The selection committee placed Georgia ahead of Alabama in the first playoff rankings. It wasn't surprising. Georgia beat Notre Dame and blew out Mississippi State, two top-20 teams, and Alabama has zero wins against top-25 teams. In fact, it has zero wins over teams that would be universally agreed upon as top-40 teams.
For several years, the SEC's depth rose right along with Saban, but now Saban is outlasting everyone and putting every other SEC team on edge. After Hugh Freeze's firing in the summer, current SEC head coaches are a combined 2-33 against Saban-coached Alabama teams. Those only wins belong to Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin (Johnny Manziel's 2012 heroics) and Auburn's Gus Malzahn (the 2013 Kick Six). In other words: It's been nearly four years since a current SEC head coach beat Saban. Sumlin has struggled to find (and keep) a reliable post-Manziel quarterback, Malzahn has struggled to maintain a high level of play on offense, Ole Miss has succumbed to scandal and LSU failed to adapt to keep up. Alabama reloads and sustains success as everyone else flails, and the SEC is doing far more flailing than usual this year.
The schedule so far isn't Alabama's fault, of course. (Just as weak schedules are not the fault of fellow unbeatens Wisconsin, Miami and UCF.) Florida State went from part of the biggest opener ever to one of the most disappointing teams ever, now 2-5. And it's possible that four of the five SEC teams that Alabama has played so far (Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Arkansas and Tennessee) will have new coaches the next time they play Alabama.
Add it all up, and the first two months of Alabama's 2017 season have featured:
- Six blowouts wins
- No real threat of losing in any fourth quarter
- As many opponents with coaches on the hot seat as opponents with winning records
- Its biggest game coming against a Florida State team that, in retrospect, is the most disappointing team in college football
- Little evidence that the passing game has changed from last year, plus no Lane Kiffin drama to make things interesting
- No obvious Heisman candidate
Alabama hasn't played great opponents, but there's little argument about how good it is. The selection committee gave Alabama the benefit of the doubt based on eye test and, undoubtedly, past history -- based on resumes, Notre Dame had an argument to be ranked higher -- and nobody can blame the committee for doing so. No matter the schedule, stating that an Alabama team with an 8-0 record and six blowout wins is very good and worthy of being in the top four is the least controversial statement anybody can make.
That leads to November and the question of whether Alabama's season will actually get more interesting.
Based on opponents, it will. Alabama plays Mercer later this month, but its remaining three regular-season SEC games are against teams that are the best opponents on the schedule: No. 19 LSU this Saturday, No. 16 Mississippi State next week and No. 14 Auburn in the final week of the regular season. Assuming Alabama wins the SEC West, it will move on to Atlanta to face No. 1 Georgia. Current strength of schedule for Alabama doesn't matter, because all of its best opponents are still to come.
Of course, how much Alabama is truly tested is another matter. LSU has lost six in a row to Bama in which it hasn't scored more than 17 points. Mississippi State has lost nine in a row to Bama in which it has scored more than 10 points only once. Auburn has lost three in a row to Bama and scored one touchdown in the past two meetings. And Georgia? It's had a magnificent season under longtime Saban assistant Kirby Smart, but Saban is undefeated against his former assistants and typically beats teams with similar playing styles with relative ease.
Despite that history, November and December can't help but get much more interesting for Alabama. The games are getting bigger, playoff rankings season is in full swing and attention will zero in on the national championship favorites. If you are a diehard college football fan, you will almost certainly watch a full Alabama game again in the next month.
But you're still unlikely to watch the Tide lose.