"Welcome to Louisiana! Home of the NOT-BCS CHAMPIONSHIP GAME. ANYBODY BUT ALABAMA." -- Inebriated man shouting at passersby in the French Quarter on New Year's Eve
NEW ORLEANS -- It's a remarkable thing, to witness Alabama spend four hours appearing utterly human.
Alabama was not supposed to be here. It was supposed to be 2,000 miles away in Pasadena, again proving its supremacy, again proving its astonishing infallibility. Oklahoma was not supposed to be here. It was supposed to be in the Alamo Bowl, perhaps, capping a good but bland season by getting run out of the building by Oregon.
Bowl games are often surprising because they are random one-off events weeks removed from the season, in which motivation is supposed to play a role. But the events of Thursday night at the Superdome were no random occurrence; they were Bob Stoops and Oklahoma taking a sledgehammer to any and all Alabama-as-immortal, Oklahoma-as-a-massive-underdog narratives.
This was no fluke, no result of a lack of bowl motivation, no Hail Mary or Kick Six. This was Oklahoma flat-out out-playing Alabama, on both sides of the ball, with Stoops and Josh Heupel out-coaching Nick Saban and Kirby Smart to create a nationwide schadenfreude scenario to ring in the New Year.
Naturally, though, with Oklahoma's 45-31 win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl on Thursday night, the Sooners proved Saban right.
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It was hard to take him seriously. Nick Saban always wants you take him seriously, of course, and he was dead serious when he spoke in his final pregame press conference. But all an observer could do is smirk and try not to laugh, as Saban said he had been concerned about his team's mindset late in the season, through the Auburn game, about the complacency he tries so desperately to avoid. This is despite the fact that 1) the Auburn loss came on one of the biggest fluke plays ever after several missed field goals, and 2) Alabama finished the regular season with as many losses as its last two national title teams.
"I think one of our players said it best: Our victory is what defeated us," Saban said Wednesday, before the Sugar Bowl. "When you win, sometimes you start to lose focus on the things that are important to being successful. The process of things that you do to pay attention to detail, play with discipline, do the little things correctly, all of a sudden don't seem as important and you don't practice as well, you don't prepare as well, you don't pay attention to these things, and all of a sudden, it starts to show up in your play."
It's not that Saban predicted a loss, but everything he's ever worried about as a football coach came to fruition at the Superdome on Thursday. The process cracked. Oklahoma had spent its pre-bowl preparation period evolving into some sort of juggernaut, and Alabama had no idea what was coming.
Uncertainty at quarterback turned into Trevor Knight's coming out party, with a near-flawless 348 yards and four touchdowns as Oklahoma's receivers made Alabama's inconsistent corners pay. A season of frustration with the game planning and play calling of offensive coordinator Heupel turned into a sort of repeat of the Iron Bowl in which Alabama couldn't keep up with Oklahoma's aggressive, up-tempo approach and new wrinkles. Years of questioning Stoops' coaching ability in big games turned into Stoops reminding everyone why Oklahoma, under his watch, has been the most consistently good program of the BCS era, with nine BCS bowl appearances.
In a shocking twist of fate, to perhaps everyone but Saban, Alabama looked lost and unprepared. It made the mistakes, turning the ball over four times, it couldn't protect AJ McCarron and it couldn't keep up with Oklahoma's newly diverse offense.
"As a team we didn't play well enough to win, and Oklahoma really outplayed us," Saban said after the game, in front of an eerily empty press conference room as Oklahoma celebrated on the field. "And I really can't blame it on the lack of focus. I just don't think that our players realized … what it really takes to win every game and that you can never take anything for granted, and that everyone that plays us has something to prove. And they have to change the way they think, and that's difficult to do. And they've gotta stick with the process with what they have to do to do it, and it's tough."
Essentially, according to Saban, Alabama has won too much for its own good, an assertion that's sort of like his immortal line, revealed by GQ, about the national championship game taking away valuable recruiting time. Nobody anywhere is going to feel sorry for Alabama, because these are ridiculous problems to have. But it does make one wonder what's next.
Saban wants to go back in time, to hit reset. On Wednesday, he was asked about comments he made wishing he could take his team back to the mindset of 2007, his first year at Alabama.
"When you start a program, you focus on the fundamental things that you feel are really important in the program …" Saban said. "So maybe people need to be more accountable to it. Maybe they need to be more aware of it, whether it's coaches, players, myself, whoever is involved."
The dynastic success of the last several years have put a target on Alabama's back, with Saban saying, "Everybody's got something to prove when they play against Alabama, and Oklahoma certainly did a good job in terms of how they performed tonight." For once, though, Alabama finally has something to prove to itself, and ultimately, maybe that's the way Saban likes it.
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Much about Alabama will be the same next season, only the losses of McCarron and linebacker C.J. Mosley serve as a jarring dividing line between eras. It's as if the Sugar Bowl signaled, if not the end, at least an intermission in the Alabama dynasty.
Saban will start over with a new quarterback, attempting to recapture that past start-from-scratch mentality. There's every reason to believe he'll do that and successfully launch another run of remarkable success. Alabama continues to haul in top recruit after top recruit. On Thursday, it appeared that 238-pound true freshman running back Derrick Henry -- who had only 27 carries in the regular season -- might single-handedly bring Alabama from behind with an awe-inspiring blend of power and lateral quickness that allowed him to rush for 100 yards and take a short pass 61 yards for a touchdown. Receiver Amari Cooper, tight end O.J. Howard and several pieces of the offensive line will return. The secondary will likely turn around after a substandard year.
The depth of talent hasn't changed, and doesn't appear to be changing anytime soon. A brief glitch won't necessarily signal the end of Alabama football as we've come to know it.
But for as thrilling as Oklahoma's upset was throughout the night, the most jarring aspect might have been the very end, a play that probably didn't matter much for the outcome. Having just taken a 45-31 lead to seemingly put the game away with 47 seconds left and getting flagged for two celebration penalties in the process, the Sooners had to kick off from their own 10-yard line. Instead of sending it deep, kicker Nick Hodgson squibbed it forward off an Alabama player. Oklahoma recovered, and thus it could run the clock out itself instead of waiting for time to expire on Alabama.
Perhaps inconsequential to the result, it was a stunning coda in which Stoops finished a four-hour humiliation of everything Alabama football is supposed to stand for, making it painfully clear Alabama really had no business in Pasadena after all. Faced with weeks of questioning about the superiority of Alabama, the vultures were circling, set to pick every last piece of meat off the body of the suddenly vulnerable Crimson Tide.
It turns out Alabama was supposed to be here in New Orleans, that the Crimson Tide were exactly where they belonged. The anybody-but-Alabama crowd got its wish. And what comes next is one of the most fascinating offseason questions in a long time.
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