TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — In the end, it all appeared to go as planned. Tua Tagovailoa scored sparkling touchdowns to extend his lead in the Heisman Trophy race, and the defense proved to be a stone wall when it mattered most as Alabama went on to beat Auburn by the mile-wide margin of 52-21 on Saturday.
This was what everyone had come to expect. Dominance. Perfection. A well-oiled machine with a star quarterback and a defense that constricts like a snake. By the end of the night, the Crimson Tide had gone wire to wire, from the preseason all the way through the regular season, as the No. 1 team in the sport, and no one blinked an eye.
A win next weekend against Georgia in the SEC championship game would lock in a fifth consecutive trip to the College Football Playoff. Heck, a loss might not even derail Nick Saban’s squad from moving on to a semifinal game in either Dallas or Miami. Barring a strange turn of events, Alabama (12-0) will be the odds-on favorite to win it all once again.
There have been some great championship-winning Alabama teams under Saban, but this is the first since 2009 with a chance to go undefeated through the postseason. The question of whether it’s the proverbial “best ever” began months ago, and nothing has happened since to bolster the argument that it isn’t.
But in the process, an understanding of how we got here has fallen by the wayside. Because four months ago, there was no clear starting quarterback, no star anchoring the defensive line that anyone knew of, no lock that this was a team destined for greatness. There were more questions than answers back then.
Nothing was more hotly debated during the summer than who would wind up as QB1. Tagovailoa was an enigma, a hero for one half of football and an overtime. He had won Alabama the national championship last season coming off the bench at halftime against Georgia, but the rest of his record was thin. Internally, coaches wondered how he would respond to pressure. He was the favorite to unseat Jalen Hurts, who had one SEC Offensive Player of the Year award to his name and a record of 26-2 as a starter, but it was far from a guarantee he would do so.
Saban agonized over the decision. All spring and summer, he waited and waited and waited some more. He grew impatient with questions about the competition and even threw out the idea of a two-QB system. And when he finally gave Tagovailoa the nod in the season opener against Louisville, there was no official announcement, which is to say that it wasn’t a decision written in stone.
But, ultimately, Tagovailoa made the choice easy. From the moment he threw that first Houdini-like touchdown pass to Jerry Jeudy against the Cardinals, it was over. The secret was out. Tagovailoa could make throws no one in an Alabama uniform ever had before. His feel for the game and his improvisational skills were undeniable. A process that was expected to take weeks took only one game, as Saban named Tagovailoa the starter the following Monday.
With Tagovailoa under center and a talented group of receivers that included Jeudy, DeVonta Smith, Henry Ruggs III and Jaylen Waddle, the offense took off. The tight end position, long a black hole for production under Saban, became a threat with Irv Smith Jr. gobbling up touchdowns. Damien Harris and a talented stable of running backs continued to do their thing, but the speed with which Alabama scored was overwhelming. For the first time, a Saban-coached team was more closely identified by its offense than its defense.
Part of that was the transition occurring on the defensive side of the ball, though. Theirs was a unit in flux, starting with a change at the top from the experienced Jeremy Pruitt (off to Tennessee) to unproven first-time coordinator Tosh Lupoi. Daron Payne, the team’s anchor at nose guard, was gone. Minkah Fitzpatrick, perhaps the best defensive back ever to come through Tuscaloosa, had left for the NFL, as well. So, too, had the remaining three starters in the secondary.
Thankfully for Saban and Lupoi, the first half of the season allowed for some time to develop. The offense mowed down the likes of Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Arkansas. A 58-21 win at Tennessee revealed some flaws, but they were easily overlooked because of Tagovailoa’s continued march to the Heisman Trophy.
Coming out of the ensuing bye week, something changed. Deionte Thompson and Xavier McKinney had quietly become one of the better safety tandems in the SEC, and nose guard Quinnen Williams had made a name for himself among fans, as well as NFL scouts. Williams, Payne’s former understudy, went from a slightly undersized afterthought to the heartbeat of the Alabama defense and perhaps the most dominant defender in college football.
In a top-five matchup with LSU coming out of the bye, the defense had its statement game. Feeling overlooked and admittedly annoyed by all the attention the offense received, Williams & Co. dominated the Tigers in Baton Rouge. LSU had negative rushing yards going into the fourth quarter. The only time its offense sniffed the end zone was when the game was out of hand, and even then, middle linebacker Mack Wilson came up with an interception.
Shyheim Carter, an overlooked DB in an overlooked secondary, seemed to speak for everyone when he wrote, “NUMBER 1 DEFENSE” on his eye black. And after pitching a shutout, who was going to argue with him? The only supposed missing piece of the Alabama puzzle had fallen into place.
There were some minor scares since then, of course. The Citadel fought hard for a half, and Auburn even made a few nice plays early in the Iron Bowl, but they were no match for Alabama. When the defense faltered against its in-state rival, Tagovailoa and the offense inevitably marched down the field to score — once on a nifty Tagovailoa run and once more on a quick pass to Ruggs that ended with him diving to pay dirt. Coming out of halftime, nursing just a three-point lead, Tagovailoa delivered a dagger in the form of a touchdown pass to Jeudy.
The 75-yard dime to Jeudy felt like a proverbial Heisman moment, but Tagovailoa’s entire season has included plays that seem to punch a ticket to New York City. On the ensuing possession, he floated a pass right into the breadbasket of Joshua Jacobs that ended with six points and many, many more slacked jaws.
The response was peak Alabama, a team that comes on like an avalanche and overwhelms anything it comes into contact with. It was to the point on Saturday night that beating Auburn by 31 felt like an understatement.
Nothing guarantees Alabama’s rush to the championship will continue, of course, but there are no signs of it stopping anytime soon. Whatever questions the team had before have been answered in resounding fashion, from the quarterback to the defense and everything in between. It’s to the point where the only thing being asked these days is where this team stacks up on the all-time list.