STARKVILLE, Miss. — America has seen many years of awesome Alabama. Years of overwhelming Alabama. Years of big bad bully Alabama.
But scrappy, gritty Alabama?
Who, aside from Nick Saban, ever expected that?
That doesn’t mean Alabama has never lost an SEC game, of course. There have been a few over Saban’s tenure, and a few sort-of-close wins, too. But it’s been a long time since Alabama had to go on the road and win a game where character and composure meant more than recruiting rankings.
Eventually, it had to happen. No matter what anyone tries to tell you, playing on the road in the Southeastern Conference isn’t easy, even if Alabama has made it look easy. The environment in Starkville on Saturday night could not have been better, or louder. Dan Mullen is a good coach. Mississippi State had a solid plan. The Bulldogs were strong at the line of scrimmage. If you could find a negative about the Bulldogs, perhaps it was this: When winning time came in the fourth quarter, MSU seemed to look for a path to overtime instead of keeping the gas pedal pressed firmly to the floor.
Still, it was enough to scare Alabama. The question now is whether it will make Alabama ready for scarier locations still to come. No Crimson Tide fan wanted the heart palpitations as they were happening in real time, but once the clutching chest pains ended without being terminal to the hopes of an unbeaten season, was it worth it? Did all those Saturdays of being bored by beatdowns suddenly seem not so bad after all?
Even Saban seemed to think that a taste of drama wasn’t all bad.
“If we’re going to beat really good teams, we have to learn how to compete in close games,” he said. “We don’t always have that when we win 49-0.”
There are chances ahead, ones that will come quickly after a manageable game against Mercer. There is Auburn. Win that one, and there is Georgia. Win that one and there will be a national semifinal opponent good enough to emerge from the smoldering wreckage that is this season around the country.
Going into that stretch, here’s what Alabama knows that it has, and what it knows that it doesn’t have, or at least didn’t on Saturday night.
The Crimson Tide has an unflappable quarterback, one who has the ability to make plays by either passing or running and who clearly has the respect of his teammates in the huddle. Jalen Hurts directed the kind of fourth-quarter, game-winning drive that would make any quarterback a hero for any other group of fans. That’s not to say many Alabama fans don’t appreciate Hurts. Most do. Some don’t, and probably still don’t today, which means they never will.
Certainly, it helps he has an elite receiver in Calvin Ridley, the one riddle Mississippi State could never solve, from Alabama’s first drive to its last.
What Alabama doesn’t have is a dominant linebacking corps, not after injuries have knocked out its starters and afflicted its depth. Possibly people will realize that no college team can lose Reuben Foster to the pros, then Shaun Dion Hamilton to injury, and keep plugging in the same sort of talent and experience.
When you understand those things, you find yourself with a football team at a crossroads. You can, if you are that football team, shrug and say that not being dominant means there is a chance of losing, and surrender. Or you can keep on playing, see what happens and, along the way, find out what you are made of.
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or 205-722-0225.