It didn’t go as planned, but it doesn’t matter. In fact, the road to a national championship is always filled with ups, downs, close calls and plenty of luck.
The Alabama Crimson Tide got it all in one game under the lights in Death Valley.
In a lot of ways, you could sum up a full season in these 60 minutes. It’s never easy (it wasn't), and it’s not always pretty (it certainly wasn't), but a win is a win.
Nick Saban’s group got that on Saturday night after they beat the LSU Tigers 21-17, and their national championship hopes stay right on course despite one hell of a close call. They're not only alive and well, but Alabama still has a commanding hold on a very bunched BCS race.
First, the ups. Alabama played in perhaps college football’s toughest venue—LSU was 36-1 in its home stadium at night heading into this game—and came away victorious. Forget about the numbers (although we’ll get to those) and look at this for what it is.
We have billed this Alabama team to heights we haven’t hyped in recent years, prompting a week of ridiculous (and my goodness are they ridiculous) comparisons to NFL teams. As we saw against the Tigers, they are indeed beatable. As we also saw, however, it will take a gargantuan effort to do so.
One person who knew plenty about both the ups and downs in this game was AJ McCarron. His game could be divided into two uneven halves—the first half (aka the first 58 minutes) and the final two minutes at the very end.
When Alabama needed him on the final drive, McCarron answered the call. Following LSU’s missed field goal, McCarron responded by completing 4-of-5 passes for 72 yards and a touchdown. The touchdown came on a beautiful play call and screen pass to freshman running back T.J. Yeldon, who did most of the damage with his legs after the catch.
This—as well as McCarron’s play early on—will likely be prodded at throughout a good chunk of this upcoming week. Up until that final drive, McCarron had thrown for only 93 yards.
Keep in mind, these early struggles came against one of the country’s most impressive defenses, in their own building. While he did look somewhat out of sorts and inaccurate throughout most of the evening, it doesn’t matter now.
The Alabama defense was also very much not its normal self. LSU torched this group for 435 yards, including 296 yards through the air, and Zach Mettenberger played a magnificent game for the Tigers. At times, he even made it look easy.
Still, a win is a win.
And with the helping hand of two missed field goals, a botched fake field goal and a botched onside kick, Alabama remains unbeaten. Sometimes you need these breaks to stay in contention for the national title, and they got them.
Lucky? Absolutely, but attributing this to just luck (and some very questionable play calling from Les Miles) would be foolish. It’s also a moot point.
On a day when all four teams atop the BCS standings had moments when things looked like they were coming apart (looking in your direction, Notre Dame), all four stayed unbeaten and got us one step closer to chaos.
Although the debate over whether Oregon, Kansas State or Notre Dame will be in the BCS championship game will be stronger than ever, there is no debating Alabama’s status in this.
If the Crimson Tide win out, they’re in. It’s as simple as that.
They don’t need help or the assistance of the computer to get there. Taking care of their remaining schedule (which boils down to one team, really) and a win in the SEC championship will be more than enough to punch them a ticket without suspense.
Aside from this, however, is the fact that Alabama's easily the nation’s most complete team. Quite frankly, it isn't close, although the other unbeaten teams have been very impressive at times.
Despite an off night in the box-score department (and, well, most departments), the Crimson Tide have absolutely no glaring deficiencies. Their offensive line is absolutely menacing, and they were able to lean on this front when every other unit seemed to struggle.
Did LSU expose this defense? Is it slightly less dominant than we thought, or was it just not its night? I suppose we’ll find that out soon enough.
In fact, we'll find out very soon.
Alabama will now have the task of icing up and getting ready for Texas A&M. The last person you’d want to face after a game like that is Aggie QB Johnny Manziel, but he’ll be coming to town next weekend. And the Aggies will be bringing the 1,364 offensive yards that they have totaled up in the past two games along with them.
The defense will be tested. But this upcoming matchup, followed by games against Western Carolina and Auburn, are all that that remain for Alabama before a trip to the SEC championship and a possible national championship berth. We're running out of tests, and Alabama passed a huge one on Saturday night.
It won’t be easy, and it may not be easy on the eyes, but as we learned in their comeback win against LSU, it doesn’t have to be.
A win is a win.