ATLANTA — It was like watching a boa constrictor slowly squeeze the life out of its prey, or the Alamo being defended — or the Tide coming in.
The “what” seemed preordained in this SEC Championship Game. All that was really left to decide here Saturday afternoon was the “how much?”
Every team scripts its first handful of offensive plays. Only Alabama seems to be able to pen the entire story of every game from start to finish, always (it seems) winding up with a happy ending for the Crimson Tide.
Oh, Florida gave everyone’s heart a flutter when Antonio Callaway left a contrail across the field like he did at LSU, returning a punt 85 yards for a 7-2 first-quarter Florida lead.
Callaway is an SEC superstar in the making. Unfortunately for the Gators, he’s about the only sharp instrument in their offensive tool box.
Being a one-trick pony is no recipe for success against Alabama. Ole Miss hung a loss on the Tide, tis true, but it took the alliance of the Rebels’ SEC-best offense, five Bama turnovers and one darned lucky bounce off Minkah Fitzpatrick’s helmet that turned into a breakaway touchdown to stem the Tide 43-37.
From that night in September to this, Alabama played without a net in a national championship contender sense, its players knowing they had to string together 10 straight unbeaten Saturdays to stay on track for a College Football Playoff semifinal berth.
Of that, Nick Saban was very proud.
“I don’t think anybody really thought after the Ole Miss game that this team would wind up here,” the former LSU coach said after his team trounced the Gators 29-15. “To be honest with you, I had some questions in my mind.”
After Ole Miss, sportswriters and fans of SEC rival programs were declaring Alabama’s dynasty dead, dead, dead. Their defense had been exposed last season by the new true superpower in college football, Ohio State, in a 42-35 loss in a CFP semifinal at the Sugar Bowl. The 43 points allowed to Ole Miss just seemed to further confirm the fact that Bama wasn’t the beast it used to be.
How do you like the Crimson Tide now? If you’re reading this, chances are you’re an LSU fan, the fan of a team that this year lost for the fifth straight time against Alabama, whilst occupying the No. 2 spot in the CFP rankings that the Tide currently holds. Bama may be the No. 1 seed when the CFP parings are announced Sunday morning.
So you don’t like it. Understandable. No one likes a bully, especially one who chants “We just beat the hell out of you!” after pounding your face into the turf.
So don’t like it, but you have to respect it. In this age of rapid change in college football, where dozens of programs have Taj Mahal facilities and every program in the SEC West pays its head coach $4 million-plus per year, Alabama’s success under Saban not only endures but thrives.
Meanwhile, hope around the SEC is on the endangered list.
“They took it to us a little bit,” said Jim McElwain, Florida’s coach and a former Bama offensive coordinator.
They took the Gators’ breath away is what they did.
Florida had 83 yards of total offense in the first quarter. The Gators netted 3 yards in the next two quarters. The defense was stifling, and Florida’s shaky offense had little hope of moving the ball except with the occasional big bomb that found friendly hands.
For all those who criticize Les Miles’ brand of football (myself included), Bama doesn’t do a whole lot more than LSU does to confound people. It pressures the edges with passes and sweeps and takes a few more chances downfield — Jake Coker launched about three 50-50 balls that all came up aces for the Tide. But mostly Bama blocks and tackles and runs the ball with ruthless, Soviet tanks rolling through Czechoslovakia-like effectiveness.
Case in point: Through three quarters, Derrick Henry had 32 carries for Bama en route to a whopping 44 carries for 189 yards. Through three quarters, Florida had 31 offensive snaps.
It was yet another ominous sign for the SEC Eastern Bloc, which has now lost seven straight championship games to the West. The only game in that string that was close was Bama’s thrilling 32-28 win over Georgia in 2012, probably the best SEC Championship Game of them all.
The competitive imbalance between the divisions is becoming startling. Since 2009, the West is 81-35 against the East in regular-season games. Every SEC West team is going bowling for the second straight year, while only three teams in the East are bowl-eligible.
Perhaps it’s time to take another look at SEC realignment, end the permanent cross-division games and put Alabama and Auburn in the East and Missouri and, say, Kentucky in the West?
Like Alabama’s games, you know how that argument is going to end, too.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.