You can excuse Alabama fans for feeling a bit confused on Saturday.
After all, they had watched their beloved Crimson Tide win for the 25th time in a row against an SEC opponent, by a comfortable margin. That’s the way things have been going for more than a decade now, inspiring what you could describe on an ascending scale as confidence, arrogance or hubris. The juggernaut would keep rolling. To use a frequent line from the Nick Saban Book of Analogies, The Beast “would do what The Beast do.”
But it’s fair to ask whether, three games into the season, Alabama is a beast. Is this particular team a modern-day version of the Horde of Genghis Khan, prepared to trample all that stands in its way?
Or is it a group of innocent bystanders, just waiting for Superman to show up?
The glaring fact about Saturday’s 47-23 win over South Carolina was this: The Gamecocks were scrappy, they moved the ball with a 100-yard rusher and a promising freshman quarterback, but they could not stop Tua Tagovailoa, particularly not with the dazzling array of passing-game weapons at his disposal. When South Carolina focused an all-out effort on stopping No. 1-received Jerry Jeudy, Tagovailoa just focused his X-ray vision on the other Supermen surrounding him.
Henry Ruggs ran faster than a speeding bullet. Najee Harris was able to leap tall buildings (or at least tall defensive backs) in a single bound. DeVonta Smith seemingly would turn invisible for a second, then materialize in an open spot in the South Carolina secondary. The net result of all those powers on one offense was plenty of points, more than enough to win.
But will it always be enough? The evolution of a team doesn’t stop after three games but, again, every single area except for the magical throw-and-catch contingent needs improvement. Superman can save you, but he can’t always save you from someone as tough as he is.
Nick Saban sees these things.
“I thought Tua had a really good game,” he said. “He did a good job executing in the game. But we don’t have enough players to get through the season if we have to play 86 plays of defense every week.”
There are two ways to stop that, ways that complement each other. First, the defense has to play better — fewer missed tackles, better organization — you can watch entire seasons where Alabama doesn’t get a defensive penalty for too many men on the field. On Saturday, the Crimson Tide was flagged for it twice. Injuries have taken a toll, and much of the defensive depth that Alabama has is painfully young. But there needs to be more cohesion, as Saban said.
When there is more cohesion, Alabama needs to run the football, control the clock and keep the defensive unit fresh. No one wants to take out the explosive component and the big-play capability out of the offense. But that can’t be the entire offense.
Three games don’t make a season. No one is despairing, except for the Alabama fans who always despair, comparing their Saturday to LSU or Georgia, Clemson or Oklahoma and seeing no escape route for the Crimson Tide this time. That’s not automatically the case, but there is a scenario where Alabama might have to face all of those teams — and you can’t count on Superman to save you every time.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @cecilhurt