It became too easy at points of the past season to write the obituary of the Crimson Tide. First, there was the two-game losing streak to end 2013, and it seemed fair to say that no one was afraid of Alabama anymore. Then, there was the loss to Ole Miss -- and there we were, in early October, and the Tide hadn't beaten a ranked team since early November of the year before. In its last three games against Top 25 teams, Alabama had gone 0-3.
Nothing about the sloppy 14-13 win at Arkansas, the week after the loss to Ole Miss, helped. Then came the 59-0 shelling of Texas A&M the following week, and Nick Saban and Co. finally seemed to be getting back on track. This might not have been the most dominant Alabama team of Saban's tenure, and it's almost certainly not the most accomplished. But Alabama enters the SEC Championship Game on Saturday one win away from the inaugural College Football Playoff.
This is how they got there.
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It had to be Jake Coker. There was technically a quarterback competition at Alabama over the summer, but certainly Coker would win out in the end. After all, he had transferred from Florida State to play for the Tide, and while Blake Sims was certainly a capable enough guy -- he wasn't exactly the statuesque game manager that had become the norm at Alabama. Coker was the guy to run the offense, led by new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.
Until he wasn't. Sims got the start in the first game of the season -- and he got the start in every game after that. Except for the West Virginia game at the beginning of the season, Coker would never play in a game where Alabama's margin ended up being less than 21 points. The only SEC West game in which Coker saw the field was the dismantling of Texas A&M.
Part of it was that observers came away from Coker's performances unimpressed. But Sims was also pretty good. Not perfect, and prone at times to look like a first-year starter in the SEC, but pretty good on balance. He completed at least 69.7 percent of his passes in each of his first four games. He eviscerated the Florida defense, going 23-of-33 passing for 445 yards, four touchdowns and one interception.
Alabama, it seemed, had a quarterback. Oh, and they had a guy who was pretty good at playing wide receiver as well.
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It was about the time of the Florida game that Amari Cooper went from "one of the best wide receivers in the country" to "the best wide receiver in the country." Sure, the Florida defense got embarrassed in that game to the extent that you had to question how good it was to begin with. But part of it was also Cooper, who went for 201 yards on 10 receptions.
By the time Bama rolled into Oxford on Oct. 4, it was once again ranked No. 1, and was facing a team that had historically struggled to beat the Tide. And after the Cyrus Jones facemas-fumble-touchdown put Alabama up 14-3 at halftime, it looked like the game might be over for Ole Miss. Then came the fourth quarter, when Ole Miss -- down 17-10 -- scored twice in two and a half minutes to take a 23-17 lead that held.
The next week, Alabama traveled to Fayetteville and just got by an Arkansas team that hadn't won an SEC game in about two years -- winning 14-13. The Hogs outgained Alabama in total offense, rushing offense and passing offense. Had it not been for a blocked extra point, the Razorbacks might have been able to pull an overtime upset. Once again, it was fashionable to wonder how good Alabama was.
Until Texas A&M brought its defense into town and, not surprisingly to anyone who had watched the Aggies defense, the Alabama offense refound its footing. The Tide thrashed A&M, 59-0. Sims was 16-of-27 for 268 yards and three touchdowns and tacked on 54 rushing yards and another touchdown on the ground. T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry combined for 184 yards on 23 carries. Cooper caught eight passes for 140 yards. Bama's defense sacked Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen a total of six times while holding A&M to 172 yards.
Alabama itself gained 602 yards and was going easy on the Aggies for most of the second half. The Tide was up 45-0 at halftime
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Even after that, though, Alabama still wasn't particularly dominant. Amari Cooper could be -- he caught nine passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns against Tennessee in a 34-20 win -- but November featured varying degrees of close calls for the team against all three of its FBS opponents.
Alabama had to hang on for a 20-13 overtime win against LSU. (Cooper was held to 83 yards, one of his lowest totals yet, on eight receptions, and Alabama as a whole only gained 315 yards.) While the Tide largely controlled the game against Mississippi State, it still ended with a 25-20 score, and the result was in some part due to Dan Mullen's inexplicable clock management at the end of the game. But Bama was looking more like itself in that game, with a final touchdown drive for the Tide that was vintage Alabama, burning six minutes off the clock late in the game.
But the most death-defying act yet was to come in the Iron Bowl, which has become notable over the last several years for come-from-behind victories. Alabama took a quick, 14-3 lead, and it looked like Auburn might get run out of Bryant-Denny Stadium. But the Tigers clawed back and lead 26-21 at halftime and 36-27 after an Auburn FG with about three and a half minutes left in the third quarter.
Ten seconds later, Cooper grabbed a 75-yard touchdown pass from Sims, and the Tide proceeded to break open the game, scoring 28 unanswered points before a late Auburn touchdown closed the margin to 55-44. That wasn't vintage Alabama, but it led to a vintage Alabama result: A trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game, with a berth in the playoffs on the line.
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To some extent, Alabama is going to need a bit of what it's done all along to win Saturday in the Georgia Dome. Blake Sims will have to play well and will probably have to use his mobility at times to elude the Missouri pass rush. Amari Cooper will have to find ways to get open -- or catch passes even when he's not. Do that and get some production out of the defense, and the odds that Alabama will win are far north of 50-50.
That doesn't mean Alabama will quite be back to its old self. The 16.9 points per game that Alabama has allowed this year -- counting blowout wins over cupcakes -- is the highest average since Nick Saban's first season in 2007, as is the 312.0 total yards allowed. Those are numbers that a lot of other teams would be happy with, but a lot of other teams are not Alabama.
Ultimately, Saturday's game and the next two after that are going to prove whether Alabama can use a slightly different formula -- a more powerful offense and a still formidable but maybe not as smothering defense -- to do the same thing that it did in the past. The Alabama of the last several years might be gone, but that doesn't mean the Tide can't roll on.