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How we got to Atlanta: Alabama

The Tide rolled and rolled and rolled and rolled...

NCAA Football: Auburn at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

The self-sustaining machine that is Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide.

That’s how you have to say it, now: Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide.

Alabama is not simply Alabama. They certainly weren’t before 2007. From 1997-2006, the decade prior to Saban’s arrival in Tuscaloosa, Alabama’s overall record was 66-59. And this was the work of three different head coaches.

Since, Alabama’s record is an astounding 117-18. This is the work of one man. His name is Nick Saban and until further notice, the team shall be called Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide.

Like Bram Stoker’s Dracula or a Spike Lee Joint.

You would think after losing such stalwarts as your Heisman Trophy-winning running back and a cadre of elite defenders, Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide would take a step back, or at the very least, lose a regular season game.

They haven’t skipped a beat though in the intervening months since their win over Clemson. As a matter of fact, statistically speaking, both the offense and defense are outperforming last year’s squad.

Offensively, Lane Kiffin’s bunch surpassed the 2015 offense by a cool 52 yards per game, and that’s with a true freshman quarterback manning the controls.

And despite the loss of longtime DC Kirby Smart, Jeremy Pruitt’s defense is holding teams to almost 30 fewer yards and a full two points per game less than last year’s stifling crew.

Through 12 games, this team has both annihilated opponents and fought through adversity to obtain an undefeated regular season; their first since 2009.

It’s that second one, the fighting through adversity, that makes you think Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide can get back to the National Title game. There hasn’t been much of it, but when it was there, a very tough 18 year old kid named Jalen Hurts helped them regain their edge.

Looking back through the previous twelve games, you can find three pivotal moments where the true freshman quarterback led touchdown drives immediately following scores from the other team.

Two of those moments were directly related to Hurts himself.

Against Ole Miss, a missed assignment from right tackle Jonah Williams (another true freshman) allowed a free Marquis Haynes to nail Hurts’ blind side, which caused a fumble return for a touchdown. The Rebels went up 24-3 in Oxford.

On the very next offensive drive for the Tide, Hurts led the offense down for its first touchdown of the game, trimming the lead to 24-10. From there, defense and special teams assisted in tying the game in the third quarter. When it was all said and done, Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide erased a 21-point deficit to pull away with a 48-43 victory.

Another such moment came against Tennessee in Knoxville. Another away game, another raucous crowd.

As the Tide held a comfortable lead, another blind side hit, this time from the left, shook the ball loose from Hurts and was recovered by the Vols. It was deep in ‘Bama territory and Tennessee scored two plays later.

Again, on the very next drive, Hurts led a feverish march down the field that culminated in an impressive 45-yard touchdown run from the man himself. Final score 49-10.

When the Aggies went up 14-13 at the beginning of the 3rd quarter, (the last touchdown Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide has given up, by the way) Hurts, again, deftly marched his team down for the go-ahead score. ‘Bama won 33-14.

These examples are just to illustrate how prolific the Tide are in the face of deficits. If the offense misses a cue, turns the ball over, puts the defense in a bad spot, the defense steps up with minimal damage inflicted.

If the defense somehow miraculously allows the opposing offense in their endzone, the offense charges right back on the next drive.


Nonconference Games

The Tide’s out-of-conference schedule wasn’t a Murderer’s Row by any stretch of the imagination, but they did outscore all four of their opponents 167-19. This included an opening-week 52-6 drubbing of USC, a very good 9-3 team currently riding an eight-game winning streak.

It’s in their Group of Five/FCS games that Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide tend to perform lackadaisically.

In Week 2, they faced Western Kentucky and although the 38-10 score indicated an easy win, it was an Alabama fumble and a WKU touchdown in the final minutes of the game that led to this.

Week 4 provided little drama for the Tide as they pitched a 46-0 shutout against an outmanned Kent State team.

Week 12 however against the FCS’ Chattanooga Mocs was probably their least inspired game of the season. While the defense did its job, the offense allowed a smaller defensive line to apply pressure to Hurts all game. Save for a 47-yard TD pass to Ridley in the first half, the majority of points were gotten on short field situations aided by the defense and special teams.


Conference Slate

The previous five regular seasons, Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide went 11-1. Each loss was to a divisional foe, yet three of the five times they were able to make it to Atlanta for the SEC Championship.

Not taking any chances this season, the Tide put together a flawless in-conference series of games where only twice they were truly challenged.

Once, the aforementioned game in Oxford, the second in Baton Rouge against a fast and physical LSU team.

The latter was vintage Alabama-LSU. Unlike the “high-scoring” affair of 2011, the game was dead even 0-0 at halftime. Both defenses were absolutely flying to the ball and Dave Aranda’s squad made Hurts’ life a living hell.

It was only two minutes into the 4th quarter that Hurts scrambled, aided by a kinda hold from Bo Scarbrough, and found his way to pay dirt. Another field goal later, Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide escaped Death Valley with a 10-0 victory.

Arkansas proved to be the only other game aside from Ole Miss, where Alabama’s “hateful” defense allowed 400 yards passing. If not for THREE interceptions including a 100-yard pick six from all-everything defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, the 49-30 final score might’ve been a lot closer than it actually was.

In its other three conference games against Kentucky, Mississippi State and Auburn, Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide did not allow a single touchdown and scored 115 total points.


Team Offensive MVP (Jalen Hurts)

Hurts passed for 2454 yards and 21 touchdowns and ran for another 840 yards and 12 touchdowns. That’s right, a true freshman accounted for just shy of 3300 yards and 33 touchdowns for the number one team in the country.

His play elevated everyone else’s and allowed a running game to take off with his running of the read option offense. His passing skills, particularly his touch is still in its infancy, but opposing defenses should be frightened that this kid will be leading the Tide for another 2-3 years.

If Alabama does in fact repeat as National Champs this year, Jalen Hurts will be the first true freshman quarterback in over 30 years to lead them there.

Runner-Up (ArDarius Stewart)


Team Defensive MVP (Jonathan Allen)

This is the more difficult one to hand out, because there are players at every level of this defense that helped it become one of Saban’s best, but you just have to go with Allen.

While he didn’t lead the team in tackles for loss (that goes to Ryan Anderson with 16.5) or sacks (Tim Williams with 10.5), he did anchor another legendary defensive line unit and led by example each step of the way.

In total he amassed 52 tackled, seven sacks, 11.5 tackles for loss and possibly the most impressive statistic, two touchdowns.

Only safety Ronnie Harrison scored as many in 2016. His absurd sack of Trevor Knight in the A&M game will be on every highlight of Allen’s leading up to the 2017 NFL Draft.

Runner-Up (Reuben Foster)


Postmortem

It’s hard to stack up where this team ranks among Nick Saban’s best if only for the reason that their most important games are coming up.

In his postgame press conference last Saturday, Saban stated that this team’s not going to be judged by a 12-0 regular season, but what they can do in the conference championship and possibly beyond. This is where we’ll know the true mettle of this team.

And it being a down year in the conference, some are already positing that Alabama’s undefeated record may well be a mirage and that their best win might’ve come against a USC team still figuring things out.

Time will tell and this Saturday will be a good indication as to where this team needs to go if they are indeed selected as one of the four teams for the 2016 Playoff.

It’s certainly hard to argue, though, with the sheer depth of statistics that are on this Tide’s side. They played every game until the clock reached zero and there was seldom a play left on the field.

Until it’s proven otherwise this is the best team in the country and they look to be well on their way to their third straight Playoff birth.