NASHVILLE – You can spend a lifetime climbing mountains, spending most of your waking hours struggling up sheer rock faces or fighting blizzards or just testing your stamina.
But at some point, as you journey from Denali to the Matterhorn or Mount Cheaha, you’re at the summit, the sun shining, the air clear. You get to actually take a deep breath or two before moving on.
Alabama stood atop one of those peaks on Saturday. Except for a penalty or two, a missed assignment along the way, there wasn’t a single detail that even a perfectionist like Alabama’s Nick Saban would alter. The Crimson Tide was dominant in every phase, putting away a Vanderbilt team that defeated a nationally-ranked Power Five team the week prior before the third quarter was halfway done.
The offensive performance would have been more than adequate on an average defensive day. The shutout by the defense would have stood up even if offense had sputtered. Taken as a whole, they made Alabama look like the best college football team in America for whatever that is worth in late September.
“They’re the No. 1 team for a reason,” said Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason, whose upcoming task, as he described it, consists of not having his team “fall into the abyss” for the rest of the year.
If they do, it will look very familiar.
Circumstances couldn’t have been worse for Vanderbilt, which has committed itself to building a better program the old-fashioned way. That has worked, in a way. But when the other team is bigger, stronger and faster, you have to hang on and shorten the game. Once you are down 21-0 in the first quarter, you need some sort of offensive ability to come from behind. Vanderbilt doesn’t have that, the “efficient” Commodore passing game being built more as a complement to a running attack than a vertical assault weapon on its own. Lacking that, you have to at least be able to run the ball well enough to shorten the game and abridge the full dictionary of agony into a thousand or so pages. Vanderbilt got the unabridged edition.
Aside from Alabama loyalists, there were few people that watched the last 20 minutes of play. For those that did, the ability level of the freshmen that Saban sprinkled into the lineup did not portend well for the future — if you are an Alabama opponent. No, there is not a quarterback controversy although the subterranean rumbling about “the backup” will never, ever end in Alabama until the planet itself stops spinning. But Tua Tagovailoa, in relief of Jalen Hurts, whipped the ball around nicely. Every running back saw action and they all looked good, although the first taste of playing time had to be especially sweet for Tuscaloosa’s Brian Robinson Jr., coming with the added bonus of a touchdown along the way.
There are more mountains to climb, of course. The journey has hardly started for Alabama, no matter how encouraging the result. Remember the last time Alabama had a 59-0 SEC win, blowing Texas A&M out of Bryant-Denny Stadium in 2014? That game came after a 14-13 win over Arkansas (and an epic Saban rant, an attention-grabber he didn’t need to employ with Vanderbilt doing the motivational dirty work for him this week.) An overtime win over LSU and a shootout with Auburn lay ahead in the regular season. This year will be no different. But for one Saturday, the top of the mountain was a comfortable place to be.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.