To the consternation of fellow championship hopefuls, Alabama hasn’t lost its established strengths. The roster is loaded with top-level talent: Quinnen Williams may be the top defensive tackle in the country, and running backs Damien Harris and Najee Harris average six and seven yards a carry, respectively. After some early hand-wringing—“We scored a lot of points, but we really didn’t control the game,” Saban complained after a three-touchdown win over Texas A&M in September—the defense has found its familiar form, posting two shutouts of ranked teams in its past three games. “It’s just worked in all the right ways, I’d say, for everyone in this organization,” Tagovailoa said last month of the dreamy season. “I don’t know how else to explain it.”
The toughest portion of the schedule—including a potential fourth playoff meeting in four years with the second-ranked Clemson team—remains ahead of the Tide. College-football lore is made in no small part by teams that only seemed unbeatable. “What they’ve done so far this season is extremely remarkable, but it isn’t unprecedented,” Kent Stephens, the College Football Hall of Fame curator and historian, told me. “In 1983, at this point in the season, Nebraska was beating teams at a 52–13 clip, and they didn’t win [the national championship] … Ohio State, in ’69, going into the Michigan game, they were outscoring teams at a 46–9 clip, and people were saying that the only team Ohio State could lose to would be the Minnesota Vikings. And [Ohio State] went and played Michigan and they lost.”
Regardless of what transpires between now and January 7, when the title game is held in Santa Clara, Alabama’s dominance has already communicated a message: Competing for college-football championships means competing with the Tide, and that suddenly entails quite a bit more than it used to. “We weren’t even close to them tonight,” Ed Orgeron, the head coach of the then-fourth-ranked Louisiana State University Tigers, said earlier this month after Tagovailoa posted two passing touchdowns and a rushing score in a 29–0 win in Baton Rouge.
This year’s team has also revised the reputation of its architect. Saban was once the sport’s daunting constant, testing and dismissing whatever newfangled strategies were employed against his prized defense, but the still-nascent Tagovailoa era has revealed in the 67-year-old a willingness to adapt. “He’s perfectly content with winning,” McElroy said of his former coach, “however winning looks that particular week.”
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