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Alabama Has Lost Its Benefit of the Doubt

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For the first time in years, the Crimson Tide doesn't get to be at the top just because.

Scott Cunningham

With two weeks in the books, I find it interesting that a particular team is missing from a lot of playoff projections:

  • SBNation.com: 1 FSU, 2 Oregon, 3 Georgia, 4 Oklahoma
  • Lou Holtz: 1 Auburn, 2 Notre Dame, 3 Oklahoma, 4 Oregon
  • Mark May: 1 Georgia, 2 FSU, 3 Oregon, 4 Oklahoma
  • Pat Forde: 1 Oregon, 2 Texas A&M, 3 Georgia, 4 FSU
  • Brad Edwards: 1 FSU, and then in some order, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Georgia

Remember Alabama? Of the major sites' projections available this morning, only Jerry Palm's projection at CBSSports.com has the Crimson Tide in the top four. In the preseason consensus, everyone you've heard of had Bama in the top four. Just two weeks into the season, it's not easy to find anyone putting it into a formal prediction for the playoff.

I think I understand where this is coming from, and it's probably a combination of factors.

First, preseason predictions are becoming more reviled by the year within the football cognoscenti. Every year, an increasing number of football think pieces argue that we shouldn't have preseason rankings, or even any rankings at all until midseason. The fact that the BCS standings didn't come out until midyear and that the selection committee's rankings will do the same are concessions to this line of thinking.

Thing is, rankings get a lot of attention. So do playoff predictions. Pundits have to deal with them this early in the season whether they like it or not, so they naturally will look for a way to show that they're not beholden to those rotten old preseason rankings. What's the best way to show it? By knocking a near-unanimous playoff pick from the preseason out of the top four. Making that team be Alabama—they of Nick Saban and three national titles in the past five years—makes that point well, and the fact that the Tide wasn't as impressive as we expected it would be against WVU gives a reason to make it that team.

Someone has to replace Bama, though, so who will it be? Georgia is the most common replacement team, and why shouldn't it be the Bulldogs? They beat down a ranked Clemson team instead of struggling to beat an unranked West Virginia.

Except—see what happened in that last sentence? Ranked Clemson. Unranked WVU. What happened to hating preseason rankings? All right, toss out the rankings. Swapping in Georgia for Alabama can still be justified by saying we thought Clemson would be better than West Virginia. Problem is, that's going off of preseason sorting, and preseason rankings are just one form of preseason sorting. OK, fine. Georgia just looked better. Sure, but that's the eye test, something else I thought we all agreed that we hate.

West Virginia looked really sharp in its loss to Bama, while Clemson's offense waved the white flag (punt flag?) in the second half. You can make a case for keeping the Tide in the top four while telling UGA to wait its turn. And what of Texas A&M still appearing in one of them? The case for the Aggies is entirely based on their win over South Carolina, but the Gamecocks didn't look great in Week 2 either. They pulled off the near-impossible by falling in the traditional polls after a win. If we're truly being flexible here, everyone should be pumping the brakes some on A&M.

Anyway, I don't really care and it doesn't really matter if you have Georgia or Alabama or both or neither in your post-Week 2 playoff projection. Aside from showing off the contrarian streak that runs through punditry these days, though, this shows that Bama has lost its free pass.

Ever since 2009's national title fulfilled everyone's expectations of what life with Saban at Alabama would be like, the Tide has enjoyed a tremendous benefit of the doubt. The program earned it, too, by churning out some of the best teams of the current era in the interim. However, that faith in the Tide has been eroding of late. Turns out, 2009 was the pinnacle record-wise, as Bama hasn't gone undefeated since. Its most recent champion lost a game in the regular season and very nearly lost the SEC Championship Game. The same story about Bama not being focused for the Sugar Bowl that worked after Utah hasn't been so effective after Oklahoma.

Toss in the preseason quarterback controversy and everyone's favorite punching bag Lane Kiffin, and a lot of folks seem awfully ready to go a year without Bama dominating. Never mind that Blake Sims seems fine and adds a dimension of mobility that the Saban-era Tide hasn't had. Never mind that Amari Cooper is setting new records every week. Never mind that the trio of T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry, and Kenyan Drake is even more terrifying in practice than in theory.

Again, I don't care what the general public feeling for Alabama is. Every team is still a bit of a Rorschach test after only two weeks, but it is interesting to find out what people are seeing. In Alabama's case, they're seeing a vulnerable team rather than a sleepy monster that briefly had trouble waking up. It doesn't matter a ton now, but it might come December if a non-SEC champion Alabama is one of the teams fighting for the fourth playoff spot. Early season narratives never truly go away, after all.

Just something to file away for later if we need it.