The simplest option would be to say Alabama’s 65-31 win against Arkansas was “strange” and move on. That would leave us about 560 words short of a column, though, so the best thing to do would be to figure out what exactly was so “strange” about it.
First, “strange” doesn’t mean “bad.” Putting 65 points on the scoreboard in a game isn’t “bad” if you are playing college basketball, much less college football. Even Nick Saban said he “couldn’t complain,” which was roughly the same has having a fish tell you he “couldn’t swim.”
The 11 a.m. kickoff wasn’t strange — Alabama is getting used to those — and while the Arkansas weather was certainly changeable, from hot sun to a momentary mist to, finally, a pleasant, breezy day, that wasn’t it, either.
It wasn’t seeing Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts on the field at the same time, which was unprecedented but would qualify more as “intriguing” than strange.
But for fairly large portions of the game it looked like Alabama in those clean white road uniforms, the same stars but a different script. For a moment here or a moment there, a play would unfold and — especially on defense — the action wouldn’t match the expectations that have been built over years of success.
It was like listening to your favorite classic rock song, but at the point where some shredding guitar solo is supposed to kick in, there is some tasty jazz saxophone instead.
How many time in the past decade have you seen an Alabama opponent throw a bubble screen or complete a toss to a back coming out of the backfield, only to see a heat-seeking linebacker or safety zoom in and make a sure tackle? How many times have you seen that opponent, facing a third-and-long, fail to convert because of fierce pressure, perhaps even a sack? That didn’t happen much on Saturday.
So what might be the reasons?
Is it simply personnel? The players on Alabama’s first-team defense are very good, but are they as good as some of the stellar defenses of the recent past? Even more tellingly, are there as many of those good players to go around? If there were enough in the preseason, is that still the case without Terrell Lewis (especially), Chris Allen and Daniel Wright? The absence of Lewis and Allen as outside pass rushers seems glaring.
One wonders, though, just how much Alabama’s new offensive prowess — as popular and wonderful as it is — takes a toll on the defense. A couple of years ago, the common animal kingdom metaphor for Alabama was a python, wrapping around hapless victims and squeezing and kneading them into submission.
That, in large part, meant a time-consuming offense, allowing the defense to rest as all that crushing and kneading was going on. Now, the offense is more like some fierce pack of velociraptors — Hawaiian ones, if you prefer — that hits you so hard and so fast that by the time that you see them coming, they’ve removed your left lung and are coming back for your solar plexus.
It’s great entertainment, and highly effective, but allows little time for oxygen on the defensive sideline. Arkansas ran 71 plays and had almost 33 minutes of possession time. They still couldn’t keep pace, but perhaps a more dangerous offensive opponent could. Arkansas was a play or two away, not from winning, but from at least making things interesting.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter, with Alabama sitting on more than enough horsepower to leave any other team in the rear view mirror. Certainly, we haven’t reached the point of seeing a 2018 Alabama game as “tense.” Maybe “strange” isn’t the right word, either. Maybe it is just “different.”
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.