Alabama is the clear No. 1 team in 2012. It's going to take a loss to knock it from that perch. So, as it stands, it is the team that everyone is trying to figure out how to beat.
How do you knock off Alabama?
How do you beat a team that is built more perfectly than any other on the collegiate landscape?
How do you beat a team that uses power as well as power teams but is just as fast as the speed-based squads?
For starters, you look back at its losses since growing into this dominant force. 2008 Florida. 2008-09 Utah. 2010 South Carolina. 2010 LSU. 2010 Auburn. 2011 LSU.
One of those games is not like the others: Utah. If I'm looking to design a game plan or a team to beat the Crimson Tide, then I'm essentially kicking out the Utah game.
No, not because they aren't an SEC team. It has very little to do with that. It has zero to do with the conference and everything to do with how the team was built. Yes, it was a great win and a tremendous blend of an aggressive defensive scheme that got 'Bama into trouble with an offensive, downfield-passing attack that ate up chunks of yards.
A beautiful game plan by Kyle Whittingham and his staff. A testament to self-scouting and scouting an opponent following a layover. Also, a game that helped Saban really turn the corner with his practices and preparation. You'll notice the aggressive offensive approach in 2009. We see the same approach in the 2011-12 title games against LSU.
We're looking for a trend in beating the Tide. Not a glorious performance that they have since found a way to squash. No, we're looking for results that can be duplicated, which is why their five SEC losses stand out.
Take a look at them. They're all alike. Not congruent. But they are similar. They follow a common thread.
Obviously, defense is a must, but beating Alabama is about so much more on the other side of the football. On defense, you merely need the bodies to go 60 minutes with these behemoths.
Sound easy? It's not. Very few teams around the nation have that ability to take blow after blow from Alabama's offense and get off the mat. Ask Michigan how those body punches felt around the middle of the third quarter. They hurt.
On the offensive side of the ball, there is a formula that is a must to beat Alabama: a proven run threat at quarterback, receivers capable of stretching the field vertically and an offensive line that can buy you a little time.
You see, and here is where many folks are fooled; they see Arkansas' 2010 early point flurry and mistake that for "real" success against the Tide. They see Florida's points with John Brantley in 2011 and think "there are areas of opportunity."
Those instances are not. What you have is a vanilla Alabama defense opening a game and a script from the opposition designed to strike early. Those plays are rehearsed all week at practice, and they are run to perfection.
Then, as the game goes on, the moments of success come fewer and farther between.
So, how do you manage real success against Alabama? With that formula I just gave you—run threat, vertical stretching and a little time.
Of the four teams that beat Alabama, three—LSU, Florida and Auburn—had an established quarterback run threat before the game even began. Nick Saban's team walked into the game with the idea that it was going to play eyes-front football against Jordan Jefferson, Tim Tebow and Cam Newton.
South Carolina's Stephen Garcia is the odd man out here, except the junior posted 20 first-quarter rushing yards for two first downs that made the Tide open their eyes to his ability to get loose.
Whether it is pregame or in-game, that run threat changes the complexion of the defense. Instead of treating the quarterback like a Juggs Machine and focusing on sacking him and playing coverage, now the Tide are forced to account for him as an actual player.
A stationary quarterback does not do that.
A run threat at quarterback?
That means zone defense so that no players have their backs to the ball to create massive swaths of green to run on. It means a controlled rush by the defense to keep the quarterback contained, not leaving gaping holes for the quarterback to scamper through.
So, as the defense changes, we see the next element come into play: vertical stretching of Alabama's defense. When you're playing zone, everyone gets a look at the quarterback. That means when it seems like he's going to break containment or step through an interior hole to run upfield, everyone sees it. That action freezes safeties. It paralyzes linebackers. It makes corners hesitate.
When you get hesitations like those, you get seams in the defense. Not gaping holes, but you get seams. Small windows where Alabama defenders are a step behind where they should, or want to, be. Small windows where, if Tyler Wilson or Tyler Bray were under center, there would be no daylight at all.
While Utah's all-out blitzkrieg of a game plan got it a shocking win over the Crimson Tide, I'd opt for the proven method of success time and again. Force the 'Bama defense to put its eyes on the quarterback, complete passes downfield, and get scores as the vertical seams open while the Tide protects against the quarterback run.
Now, keep in mind, folks, you still have to be a good ballclub. That means play defense against Alabama for 60 minutes. Be able to run the ball with your backs; lord knows you don't want a quarterback as your primary ball-carrier against Alabama. Have a quarterback that can throw. Have receivers that can catch.
Not many teams with "running quarterbacks" fit this bill. As we saw with Michigan, it wasn't actually a good team, had no run game and Denard Robinson cannot actually throw. So, don't read "run threat" at quarterback and mistake it for "quarterback who can only run."
Breaking containment, stepping into holes in the pocket and run-action fakes by the quarterback only work if he can complete passes downfield. Jordan Jefferson was no bastion of football greatness, but he was able to hit a few receivers when he needed to, and that helped put the Bayou Bengals in position to win.
Stephen Garcia changed the look of the game with his early scrambles and runs. That was enough to get Alabama out of its aggressive defense, which helped open things up downfield. It also helps to have a monster of a sophomore like Alshon Jeffrey to move the ball down the field.
Then, of course, you get to the Heisman winners. Tim Tebow, a year removed from his Heisman push, was a more accomplished passer but still a real threat to move the ball on the ground. He paced Florida in rushing, but his passing was the real dagger against the Tide.
And of course, Cam Newton. Down early, the run game stymied, the Auburn Tigers started stretching their legs vertically with play-action passes and Cam Newton's run-action fakes. Ultimately, it proved to be unstoppable and the Tigers won the game.
The blueprint to beat Alabama is clear, but it is not easy. Most teams don't have the personnel to make it happen. Which is why the Tide stand as college football's toughest out in 2012.