“Most people think a 10-2 record is a good thing. That’s not our standard,” — Nick Saban
Let’s get that out of the way first, before any sort of analysis of Alabama’s 35-16 Citrus Bowl victory over Michigan, or its 2019 season as a whole.
No one, not Nick Saban or anyone else, is backing away from the Frankenstein Monster of expectations that roams the streets of Tuscaloosa, not communicating in grunts and groans but instead offering staff suggestions and lamenting the painful bolts in its neck, inserted there by losses to LSU and Auburn. No one says that Alabama will take the field in September with a return trip to the Citrus Bowl on its mind. There is no need for anyone out there to proclaim the superiority of their championship lust when it is, in fact, no purer than anyone else’s, least of all Saban’s.
The Citrus Bowl did sort of wrap up the season in a package with a nice bow, but everyone understands that there are bigger, better packages expected under the Christmas tree.
Through it all, the injuries, the massive inexperience on defense, the inability to get that one decisive stop against LSU (who no one else has stopped decisively either, at least so far) or at Auburn, once again a snake pit of bad outcomes on virtually every 50/50 play, the final outcome seems to be this.
There’s a strong case to be made that Alabama was actually a Top Four team this season. I can make the case that any of the other contenders for that spot, Georgia or Oklahoma, Penn State or Oregon or anywhere else, would have had a tough time playing with the Alabama team on New Year’s Day. It’s not easy, though, to make the point that the Crimson Tide, as constituted in the Citrus Bowl, could have beaten one of the Top 3 teams. There were passes that Michigan’s Shea Patterson failed to complete that would have been big gainers for Joe Burrow or Trevor Lawrence. In the hypothetical world where there was a healthy Tua Tagovailoa all year long then, yes, Alabama would have had a puncher’s chance or better against anyone. But the unfortunate reality is that Alabama didn’t have a healthy Tagovailoa all year long. Yet even without him, the Crimson Tide dominated Michigan in the second half and filled, to an extent, the “no big win” gap on their schedule. This was a good win, not a great one, but as good as most other teams have to offer.
The No. 13 rank in the final College Football rankings was a sham all along, but that doesn’t mean that Alabama should have been No. 1 or, at the time the poll was taken, in the Top Four. Even with a good bowl win, this wasn’t the year. And when it’s not the year, well, then reference Saban’s comment at the top. A lot of places would think 11-2 was a good season. In Tuscaloosa, it’s unfinished business.
Can that business be finished in 2020? That will be easier to answer in a couple of weeks, when the roster — who stays, who goes and what they will be capable of doing if they do so — becomes set. A few players will leave early. It’s possible that Tua Tagovailoa might not be one of them, but does that guarantee a fully healthy Tua in time for the Southern Cal game? What is the future on defense?
The Citrus Bowl, unfolding as it did, gave Saban all sorts of positives to use in the upcoming season. Wherever Jerry Jeudy winds up in the NFL draft, Saban will note that he enhanced that position by coming back, displaying team loyalty and playing perhaps the game of the year. Mac Jones stepped up at quarterback. The defense showed that its pride, despite numerous assertions to the contrary, had not gone down the drain. Najee Harris dragging five Michigan players for 15 yards in the fourth quarter awakened echoes of the Alabama that fans want to see.
Not every problem was corrected with a win over Michigan, of course. But the question of whether Alabama still wanted to play like Alabama — to the “standard” that Saban speaks so much about — doesn’t seem to loom over 2020 like it did a month ago.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @cecilhurt
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