This could be a brilliant hunch or a fool’s farce, but Alabama looks vulnerable. There’s no sheen, no beginning-to-end dominance, no firm establishment of the Nick Saban “process” we normally see this late in autumn. The mechanism seems lopsided, now tilted toward his defense making repeated stops to save a sporadic offense — the polar opposite of how the Tide survived Johnny Football and Texas A&M a while back.
Watch AJ McCarron at the line of scrimmage. Rarely has he been so tentative, pointing here and gesturing there, bobbing his head, waiting forever to demand the snap as if trying to channel Peyton Manning. The difference being, McCarron is lollypopping passes, missing receivers when they aren’t dropping balls, working behind a line short of its usual mastery and now, contrary to his astonishingly consistent pattern for three seasons, throwing ugly interceptions. “We are struggling in the passing game,” said Saban, miffed and perplexed.
The rhythm is gone. “We came out sluggish and we were sluggish to the end,” receiver Kevin Norwood said, per the Associated Press, after an unimpressive 20-7 victory over mediocre Mississippi State.
Sluggish won’t work starting next week, Auburn Week. It is a game that suddenly has monster ramifications — if Alabama loses, the Tide not only are out of the national championship picture but Auburn will advance instead to the SEC title game. Having watched the work of coach Gus Malzahn in his first season — and the kismet of a deflected ball landing in Ricardo Louis’ hands for the wildest finish of the college football season — I can say Auburn is becoming a national darling. Those fatigued by Alabama’s dynasty will be rooting for the Tigers on Thanksgiving weekend in the shadow of Toomer’s Corner, where that psycho Alabama fan, Harvey Updike Jr., poisoned the famed oak trees two years ago after Auburn and Cam Newton disrupted the Saban reign and currently is serving a six-month jail term as part of a three-year split sentence. New oak trees will be planted next year, but Malzahn and his spread offense — the bane of Saban’s existence — will make for a fascinating ending to another compelling regular season, keeping in mind that Alabama and Auburn have won the last four national titles.
We wouldn’t be framing this game in grandiose terms if two Georgia defensive backs had remembered Rule One about a last-second Hail Mary missile on fourth and 18: Bat down the football. The heave from Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall — a one-time Georgia defensive back, of course, before he was tossed off the team for a rules violation — came with 25 seconds left, and when Georgia safety Josh Harvey-Clemons let the ball bounce off his hand, Louis was there to snag it with his left hand and sprint 73 yards for the winning score in a wild 43-38 win. There was so much toilet paper hanging from tree limbs at Toomer’s Corner that night, well, we’re kind of worried if the students have enough to go around this week.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Louis said. “It just landed right into my hands. I saw it once it got over my shoulder. It got tipped, I lost track of it … but when I looked over my shoulders, it was right there.”
Malzahn might be Coach of the Year, challenged by the offensive scheme-master of backwater Texas, Baylor’s Art Briles, and even USC interim coach Ed Orgeron, who is giving athletic director Pat Haden pause in his nationwide search with a Lane Kiffin-purging that included a rousing upset of Stanford. Malzahn was so jacked, he planned a wild evening out … at Waffle House. Only in the Deep South, folks, only in the Deep South. “That one aged me. I’ve lost some years off my life,” he said. “I’ll go to church in the morning, and, after church, I will flip the switch.
“It was one of those memorable moments that we’ll remember for a long time. I told our team that I think we’re in the midst of something special here.”
For Alabama to extend its magnificent national-title run to four in five seasons — and become the first team to three-peat since Minnesota in the 1930s — it will have to win at Auburn, beat Missouri or South Carolina in the SEC title game, then likely have to subdue Florida State in the Jan. 6 championship game at the Rose Bowl. The Seminoles, built in the Alabama mold by Saban disciple Jimbo Fisher, look like the more complete team at the moment. Anyone concerned about Jameis Winston’s mental framework following the unfair events of last week — though he hasn’t been charged, his name was made public amid a reopened investigation of a 2012 sexual-battery case in Tallahassee — watched him complete his first 11 passes in a 59-3 rout of Syracuse. The state attorney’s office says it will need two weeks, at least, before having any announcement concerning Winston. The investigation should be done privately, without dragging his name through the public mud until necessary. He is being tested.
“One thing about Florida State, we’re a big family. And we stay inside the family,” Winston told reporters after completing 19 of 21 passes for 277 yards and two touchdowns.
If the Heisman Trophy seemed Winston’s to win only a week ago, his legal case now clouds the discussion. Johnny Manziel, a problem child himself after a 2012 arrest and allegations that he accepted payments for autographs, is regaining momentum for a second Heisman with off-the-charts numbers and eye-popping highlights. Ultimately, this could become a baseball MVP-type argument: the leader of a potential title team vs. the more outstanding individual. I’m still a Winston guy, unable to forget Manziel’s killer interceptions — including a Pick Six that buried A&M early in the third quarter — against Alabama.
That was the game when McCarron was flawless and remarkable. Now, he is less so. Typically, he is trying to lead his team through the fog. “It makes us focus on working again in practice and not being complacent,” he said. “We’ve got another tough game on the road at Auburn. It was good for us to struggle and still get a win. It always helps your team kind of bounce back from that. Kind of reminds you you’re not as good as you think.”