ARLINGTON, Texas -- On the field it sounded like a stereo with a busted speaker. All the noise was coming from one side.
The Alabama fans hollered all the way to the end, even though the game had been over since roughly the end of the national anthem. As the seconds drained away on Bama 41, Michigan 14, the houndstooth half of the stands had a message for college football.
Stop us if you’ve heard this one.
S-E-C! S-E-C! S-E-C!
The clock finally showed mercy and ran out. The Michigan players staggered toward the tunnel. Offensive tackle Taylor Lewan served as an apt symbol for his team. He’s 6-foot-8 and 309 pounds, but he was so hobbled that it took two men to help him walk off the field.
Michigan was supposed to be big enough, fast enough, smart enough and strong enough to stick with Alabama, and maybe even pull off an upset. This was the showcase game of college football’s opening weekend, set in the glittering space pod of Cowboys Stadium, designed as the first part of a season-long essay question: Can’t somebody stand up to the best of the Southeastern Conference?
The answer, after Week 1: Keep chanting those three letters until the S-E-C! says you can stop.
College football fans talk about “SEC speed” as shorthand for the turbo buttons that seem to come pre-installed in the conference’s skill players. But this game was about power and technique. Alabama blocked, and Michigan could not shed those blocks. Alabama tackled, and Michigan could not break those tackles.
The Alabama offensive line is a fleet of construction-quality road graders, and they built lanes of smooth highway for their running backs. T.J. Yeldon -- you hadn’t heard of him -- ran for 111 yards and a touchdown. Jalston Fowler -- him either -- ran for 67. Neither is first on the depth chart; that’s Eddie Lacy, who didn’t play much because of an ankle injury. In case you’ve forgotten, Bama backs Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson went in the first round of the last two NFL drafts. Alabama is deep at running back in much the same way that Scrooge McDuck is deep in gold coins.
The Alabama defense’s best strategic move was not tackling Denard Robinson before he could throw the ball. The Michigan quarterback played an odd game. Shoelace sparked the Wolverines last year with dazzling runs off the read option, but on Saturday he chose to hand off nearly every time, even though Fitzgerald Toussaint, Michigan’s best running back, was suspended after a DUI charge. And when Robinson wasn’t handing it off, he was throwing -- and missing. He completed two bombs after the game was decided, but still ended up just 11-for-27 with three interceptions. The most open receiver he hit all night was Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley, who ran the pick back 16 yards for a touchdown. That made it 31-0 in the second quarter, and Michigan fans were starting to bemoan how much they had spent on a wasted trip to Texas.
(Speaking of financial hits: The rumor all week was that boxer Floyd Mayweather bet $3 million on Michigan as a 14-point underdog. We assume the Manny Pacquiao fight will be happening now; Floyd is suddenly short on cash.)
Why didn’t Robinson run more? “There were just not opportunities on the field,” he said simply. His coach, Brady Hoke, said he thought “there were some plays in there that maybe he could have kept it.” Then again maybe neither of them wanted him to get killed before the Big Ten season starts.
But there were larger issues for Michigan. “I don’t think we played tackle well enough on defense,” Hoke said, and you could shorten it to “I don’t think we played tackle” and come out in about the same place.
Alabama coach Nick Saban said, “There’s certainly a lot of things we can improve on.” Well, of course he did.
The truth is that Alabama beat Michigan in offense, defense, special teams, coaching, cheerleading, marching band and tailgating. Michigan even lost the Kiss Cam; an elderly Alabama couple liplocked for so long that onlookers started to wonder if things were edging toward late-night Showtime territory.
Too bad someone had to get embarrassed. It was so pleasant in JerryWorld just before kickoff, when the 90,143 fans had filled the stands and everyone was happy. College football still had that new-season smell, and both teams were undefeated, and nobody wanted to fire their coach.
Losing hurts so much in college football because one defeat so often ruins your season. For Michigan, a national title is already out of the question; fans have to downgrade their dreams to beating Ohio State and making a decent bowl game. But the SEC makes dreams real. Alabama is surely capable of going undefeated, and so is LSU, and maybe Georgia or South Carolina or Arkansas. Time-travel to the national title game in January, and it’s likely that one of those teams will be on the field, and if last year is any indication, maybe two.
(In the interest of fairness: Clemson, of the ACC, did beat Auburn on Saturday. Also in the interest of fairness: Syracuse and Pitt, soon to join the ACC, lost to Northwestern and Youngstown State, respectively.)
Of course, other schools have a shot at a national title this year -- USC and Oregon in particular. But other schools have a shot every year, and the SEC has still won six national championships in a row, with four different teams. Maybe other conferences should have their teams drink sweet tea or listen to Skynyrd or something. The current plans ain’t working.
And the SEC ain’t lettin’ up. At the end, with a 27-point lead, Alabama fans roared at the refs to make sure they caught a Michigan block-in-the-back on a punt. It wasn’t exactly a gracious moment, but then again neither is the Tide’s traditional Rammer Jammer cheer, which features this line:
We just beat the hell out of you!
The Bama fans yelled it over and over as the Wolverines limped off the field, and the SEC has now been shouting it for six years, one week and counting. It’s going to take a lot more than what Michigan had to shut them up.