May 9, 2016
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It was nothing short of an aberration.
The University of Alabama football team had stumbled in the month of September and was heading to Georgia with some serious questions, beginning at the quarterback position.
Jake Coker had finally won the starting job, but his hold on it appeared to be tenuous. How would he hold up against Southern Conference competition and playing in opposing venues? The defense had a lot of potential, only the young secondary was still experiencing growing pains and hurting from the 43-37 loss to Ole Miss.
Similar to 2008, Alabama visited Sanford Stadium with the Bulldogs enjoying a lot of momentum and the advantage of being at home. The previous meeting between the teams had gone down to the wire, 32-28 in the 2012 SEC Championship Game, and many smelled the potential for a loss.
There hadn’t been many since the last trip to Athens, 12 to be exact, and even head coach Nick Saban acknowledged it was a pivotal point of the season.
“It’s kind of time to really start thinking about what you want, what you want to accomplish, what you want to do, how you want to play and get zeroed in psychologically on what we’ve got to do,” Saban said at the time. “I think you have to have the right mindset when you play on the road. It’s difficult circumstances.”
Make that different circumstances but the same result. Similar to that 2008 game, a 41-30 victory against the No. 3 Bulldogs that was sort of a coming-out celebration of Saban with the Crimson Tide, Alabama crushed No. 8 Georgia in impressive fashion, 38-10.
While 2015 was a deja-vu season for numerous reasons, the Georgia win stood out in part because it marked the first time since the 2009 SEC Championship Game that Alabama was considered an underdog.
Odds Shark had the game listed as a pick’em during the days leading up to kickoff, but it ended up with the Bulldogs as a one-point favorite.
That snapped the streak of 72 games in which the point spread had been listed in Alabama’s favor, a span of 2,128 days. To put that into perspective, when the string began, the movie Avatar was breaking Titanic’s records at the box office, and the Marvel movie universe was just gaining momentum, square between the release of Iron Man and Iron Man 2.
Of course, Alabama subsequently started another streak, as it was favored against each opponent after the Georgia win, and by a touchdown or more against everyone except Texas A&M (five points) and Clemson (6.5).
The trend will continue in 2016, because even though Southern California is on the short list of teams with talent comparable to Alabama’s, the reigning champions will clearly be the team to beat when they meet opening weekend at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas (September 3).
Coming off an 8-6 season (1-5 against ranked opponents), the Trojans have a new head coach, Clay Helton, new quarterback Cody Kessler has moved on and the entire starting defensive line has to be replaced.
Plus, one has to think that Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin is especially looking forward to facing the school that fired him as a head coach.
History alone dictates that an upset wouldn’t be out of the question, just pretty unlikely, as Alabama has yet to lose one of these high-profile neutral-site openers under Saban. Moreover, not having a set quarterback coming out of training camp hasn’t been nearly as big a problem for the Crimson Tide as it would be with most teams.
Regardless, expect talent-rich Alabama to be assigned big point spreads against most of its 2016 opponents including Kentucky, Arkansas, Mississippi State and Auburn (which won’t change unless Gus Malzahn finds lightning in a bottle with a quarterback).
It’ll likely be favored against Ole Miss as well, even though the Rebels have won the last two meetings and will be home for this year’s game. Except for quarterback Chad Kelly, nearly every offensive starter has to be replaced, and the revamped line will be tested by Florida State in its season opener in Orlando on Sept. 5.
That leaves the tough three-game span from October 15 to November 5—at Tennessee, Texas A&M and at LSU—a stretch that would cause nearly any team to stumble and will more than test this team’s mettle.
Fans can hope that this Crimson Tide team can run the table, and it certainly has the talent to do so if everyone stays healthy, but it’s simply not a realistic expectation considering the conference, division and schedule.
Even with his five national championships, Saban has had only one team finish undefeated (2009), and it was led by a proven running back who won the Heisman Trophy. In contrast, this team doesn’t have any proven players in the backfield.
“I think it’s very difficult in this day and age,” Saban said about finishing undefeated, and that was before the playoffs were created.
Odds Shark’s early odds have Alabama and Ohio State as the favorites to win the 2016 national title, just ahead of Clemson and Michigan State, but even then you’re still probably talking about an 11-1 record during the regular season—and that’s assuming that a whole lot of things go right for this team.
But few would bet against it.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.
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