MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – You might not have seen the center shove the quarterback – by then, if you had any common sense, you were walking the dog. But if you want to understand Alabama football, those five seconds explain it all.
The Crimson Tide had already beaten down Notre Dame by what would become the final score, 42-14. Less than seven minutes were left. The Alabama offense came up to the line. Quarterback A.J. McCarron called for the snap, clapped for the ball, still didn’t get it and called timeout. He started screaming at center Barrett Jones. So Jones spun around and gave McCarron a two-handed shove in the chest.
Understand this: McCarron went 20-for-28 with four touchdowns on the night. Jones led an offensive line that turned Notre Dame’s defense into mulch. They were up by four freaking touchdowns. But this play had not turned out right, and it was time to fight about it.
You might not have heard the quote – by then, then if you had any common sense, you had gone to bed. But somebody asked Alabama coach Nick Saban if he could appreciate what his team had done: three national titles in four years, dominance over a sport we thought could no longer be dominated.
“One day, when I’m sitting on the side of the hill, looking at the stream, I’ll probably appreciate it more,” Saban said. And then he paused.
“But what about next year’s team?”
This is why so many people hate Alabama football. They can’t enjoy the moment. They can’t let up. They can’t savor the very thing they worked so hard to get.
This is also the reason they get what they work so hard for.
Outside Sun Life Stadium, before the game, the tailgates were crazy green. Notre Dame fans outnumbered Alabama fans four to one, at least. Notre Dame hadn’t won a national title since 1988, and fans paid upwards of $1,000 a ticket for this game. It must be hard to leave a seat you paid $1,000 for. But Notre Dame fans were fleeing in the third quarter. Alabama was that brutal, and that thorough.
The left side of their offensive line – tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, guard Chance Warmack and Jones – is one of the best in college football history. Alabama ran left over and over and over and over, like a bully pounding on a bruise, and when it was over Eddie Lacy had 140 yards rushing and T.J. Yeldon had 108.
And then McCarron would haul off and throw one downfield to Amari Cooper, who caught six for 105 yards and two touchdowns. It is almost cruel to say this, but Yeldon and Cooper are freshmen.
Manti Te’o, the Notre Dame linebacker, finished second in the voting for the Heisman. Alabama vanished him.
This game had a chance to mean so much more. Alabama and Notre Dame are the two monuments of college football, the two schools that most represent something bigger than the game. A close game would have been automatic history. A game like the ’73 Sugar Bowl – a 24-23 Notre Dame win – would have been an automatic epic.
But Notre Dame didn’t have nearly the talent, nearly the strength and speed. Quarterback Everett Golson actually played pretty well, but the Irish never could sustain a drive. And that is the one thing Alabama does better than anyone. It sustains. Through a drive, through a game, through a season, through an era, it pushes all the way to the end.
It helps that Alabama has to play in the SEC. The SEC has now won seven straight national titles, which sounds ridiculous, like the same movie winning seven straight Oscars. (Even crazier: The state of Alabama has the last FOUR titles. Auburn got the one of the last four that Alabama didn’t win.) The schools in the SEC spend more, and the fans care more, and more good players live down here. In the second half, the guys from Alabama in the press box were already talking about Derrick Henry, a recruit who set the all-time high-school rushing record last season. I looked him up. He’s 6-3, 238 pounds. Lord help us.
At this point we should all be mad at the kicker from Pitt, who missed an overtime field goal that would have beaten Notre Dame and put Oregon or Kansas State or somebody else in the title game. But I’m not sure those teams would have done much better. Maybe when the playoff starts in two years, and a team like Alabama has to win twice, things will start to even out. Next year, Oregon and Ohio State could be great. But so could Texas A&M and Georgia and, of course, Alabama.
The end felt like a basketball game. With about four minutes left, Saban pulled his starters so they could hear the cheers as they jogged off the field. At the end of the game, when Jones and linebacker Damion Square gave Saban the ritual Gatorade dump, he looked irritated for a couple of seconds. But then his face finally broke loose, and his comb-back flipped over to the front, and as the clock hit zero and he jogged out onto the field, we saw a real and legitimate Nick Saban smile.
It took three titles in four years to do it.
As I write this, it’s a couple of hours after the game, and some Alabama fans are still down on the field doing snow angels in the confetti. They are having so much fun celebrating a team that stands for the opposite of fun. But this is one of the contradictions of sports and life, that sometimes the greatest joy comes from the hardest work, and sometimes the greatest goals are achieved by people who see them as one more step on a long flight of stairs.
Alabama is a modern college football dynasty. I suspect Nick Saban will enjoy that for about a day. And then it will be time to think about next year’s team.
* * *