This was the chaos weekend in college football, the Friday the 13th scenario where ranked teams fell like innocent teenagers who decided to camp out at that creepy cabin by the lake.
Not every game was an upset, of course. One brave teen always survives to star in the sequel, even if it’s already the sixth entry in the series. That’s roughly where Alabama stood on Saturday, not really frightened in a 41-9 victory over Arkansas. There were errors. The punt returners missed balls in the first half. There were penalties. Perhaps the two turnovers — a season high — were a sufficient cause for worry, or for Nick Saban’s blood pressure to rise. None of that was enough to elevate Arkansas, which competes hard but was overmatched with a young quarterback, to “threat” status.
But as Alabama games go these days, you realize the Crimson Tide isn’t just playing the opponent on the field. For many in attendance, they watch Alabama playing a real football team and, simultaneously, a ghost. That specter is the image of opponents yet to come. Plays are judged not solely for what they accomplish, but for what those plays would accomplish against some fearsome future opponent between the “now” and the “playoffs”, or SEC Championship, or the season finale at Auburn.
It certainly happened on Saturday. To the satisfaction of almost no one in attendance, Alabama led 24-0 at halftime. After all, what was good enough against Arkansas might not be good enough against Ohio State, to pick a random playoff contender that didn’t actually lose over the weekend. On one hand, that’s fair.
No one talks more about “playing to a standard” more than Nick Saban. On the other hand, making a one-to-one comparison like that isn’t as simple as Photoshopping Buckeyes in place of Razorbacks on a game tape. Yes, Alabama would have to play better than the identical way it played on Saturday to be assured of victory against any possible opponent. But if Alabama were in that situation, which it may well be, the motivation level would be different, the preparation perhaps sharper, the game plan altered.
For at least one more week, Alabama will have to face the same thing, even though Tennessee is a rivalry game. Still, there’s going to be the same pervasive feeling around Tuscaloosa (and perhaps Knoxville as well) that the struggling Volunteers can’t come in and win, any more than Vanderbilt (which had the terrible misfortunes of being the first SEC opponent for Alabama and actually winning the week before) or Ole Miss or Texas A&M (actually a good team). In fact, the best outcome of the chaotic weekend may have been LSU’s win over Auburn which, coupled with the unique raw physicality of the Alabama-LSU rivalry, will actually let Alabama play an opponent instead of trying to climb a wall.
As Saban said, there is plenty to “clean up” after Saturday. But even if it wasn’t an immaculate effort, there is far less to scrub than there is for Clemson or Washington State or Auburn, excellent teams that lost because — whether people believe it or not — it’s hard to get a perfect effort every week for 15 weeks. Some weeks, you just sidestep the chaos if you can.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.