Nick Saban probably wouldn't admit it, but there's a formula for beating his Alabama juggernaut, and it's very simple, if not easy. To stem the Tide, you must win or stalemate the turnover battle, and effectively run from the quarterback position.
Since the beginning of the 2008 season, when Saban's Alabama first had a full Saban recruiting class in Tuscaloosa, 'Bama has lost seven times. (Just seven!) Here's how turnovers and quarterback rushing turned out in those games, with rushing numbers adjusted to take out sack yardage:
- Florida 31, Alabama 20, 2008 SEC Championship Game. Alabama finished -1 in turnover margin, and Tim Tebow ran for 59 yards.
- Utah 31, Alabama 17, 2009 Sugar Bowl. Alabama finished -2 in turnover margin, but held Brian Johnson to 4 rushing yards.
- South Carolina 35, Alabama 21, 2010. Alabama finished even in turnover margin, and Stephen Garcia ran for just 23 yards, but he got three first downs on the ground.
- LSU 24, Alabama 21, 2010. Alabama finished -2 in turnover margin, and Jordan Jefferson ran for 27 yards.
- Auburn 28, Alabama 27, 2010 Iron Bowl. Alabama finished -1 in turnover margin, and Cam Newton ran for 65 yards.
- LSU 9, Alabama 6, 2011 "Game of the Century." Alabama finished even in turnover margin, but Jordan Jefferson ran for 46 yards.
- Texas A&M 29, Alabama 24, Saturday. Alabama finished -3 in turnover margin, and Johnny Manziel ran for 107 yards.
The only one of those games that didn't feature a quarterback running to win -- something that stresses the disciplined, assignment-based Alabama defense -- was that 2009 Sugar Bowl, for which Alabama came out flat as a mattress and fell behind 21-0 by the end of the first quarter. Every other one involved the quarterback running as a part of the game plan, whether with Tebow and Newton crashing the line to move the pile, Garcia and Manziel scrambling, or Jefferson first scrambling and then debuting an option that flummoxed the Tide (the first time around).
And the turnover margin bit shouldn't be surprising at all: Alabama is a mortal 10-5 when it is faced with a negative turnover margin since 2008, and the best team the Tide's beaten while being generous was LSU just two Saturdays ago. And that was only because A.J. McCarron led a presumably legendary drive in the final throes of that game.
McCarron was less great on Saturday, throwing two interceptions to cancel out a couple of superb downfield throws. The first wasn't his fault, but the second was his fault alone, and came on a woeful goal-to-go series that featured a team that had run for more than four yards per carry on the day throwing from the shotgun on three of four downs.
Manziel was spectacular on the day, taking advantage of the early 'Bama mistakes to build that 20-0 lead (in three of those seven losses since 2008, Alabama's trailed by at least 18 points in the first half), keeping his cool on his fumble-to-myself-and-hey-here-is-a-touchdown-pass play, and staking Alabama's heart with a gorgeous throw to Malcome Kennedy. But his Heisman hype is partly a result of the best players in the country playing less impressive games on Saturday, partly because his amazing games have come in prime time and his clunkers against Florida and LSU in the daylight, and partly a product of the fearsome SEC media machine gearing up to get some honor for the league because it can't hype a one-loss team past two undefeated squads.
It's fair and right to acknowledge that Manziel is a sensational player who did a thing freshmen don't do, but not quite the nation's best, and that he needed his defense to force three turnovers to preserve that game. It's fair and right to concede that Alabama is a very good team, but not an unbeatable one. That won't make Saturday's win any less special for the Aggies, who have claimed their spot as an SEC contender for years to come with a stellar debut in a conference that was expected to eat them alive, and it won't make the loss any less shattering for Alabama, which fell to the head of the one-loss pack and must hope for help.
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And it's ironic that 'Bama should have to hope for help again, especially because McCarron's drive is the reason that the SEC likely won't have a national title at the end of this season. LSU should have won that game, turned the SEC on its ear in typical Les Miles fashion, and gotten the typical series of breaks LSU gets en route to a national title, because this was an LSU kind of year far more than the undefeated run the Tigers pulled off in 2011.
Since the brownout that cost LSU a game in Gainesville, LSU's been playing something far closer to lights-out football. The Tigers overcame South Carolina's best shot in Death Valley, figured out Johnny Magic in College Station, nearly upset 'Bama, and throttled Mississippi State. The Tigers were a matter of minutes from four straight wins over ranked teams and a hammerlock on the SEC West, wins that might have convinced the nation to compare their CV to an unbeaten Notre Dame should either Kansas State or Oregon have faltered.
And, because it's LSU, all three of the current unbeatens would have faltered, of course.
LSU and Florida had the two roughest schedules in the SEC this year because they each got two titans from the other division, and they'll be second in their divisions as a result, with schedule-blessed Alabama and Georgia meeting in Atlanta. (No, Alabama will not lose to Auburn.)
But this isn't just about LSU. One can make the argument that the SEC cannibalized itself better this year than any before: the six SEC teams in the BCS top nine have a combined nine losses, and all came to each other. If any one of those teams had been blemish-free, it would be the No. 1 team in the country right now; examine Florida's ascent to No. 2 for proof.
Weeks ago in this space, I wrote:
If you were hoping for a year in which the SEC wouldn't be the epicenter of college football, you're probably going to go wanting again in 2012.
And I was right ... except the seismic shake-ups in the SEC have knocked down every contender, and opened the door for a non-SEC champion.
That champion is most likely to be Oregon, I suspect. The Ducks proved their quick-strike capabilities are fully intact without a running game on Saturday against Cal, as Marcus Mariota threw for six touchdowns in the first game since a 2011-opening loss to LSU that Oregon failed to average more than four yards per carry. (Three of the six times that's happened to Oregon with Chip Kelly as head coach, the Ducks have lost to ranked teams, two from the SEC. Twice, it's happened in wins over Cal. Poor Cal.)
Oregon's got every offensive tool it needs to vivisect a defense, and it has a rubber band defense: it bends and bends, then snaps back and stings its foe. I wrote about the Oregon Win earlier this year, and how the Ducks reach a Point of No Return, while Sunday Morning Quarterback's Matt Hinton has noted the Ducks' burst and knockout capability, but all that is basically a lot of words to say this: Oregon is Jon Jones or Anderson Silva, a fighter proficient enough to stand and trade with you (please see USC, 62-51 win against) but far more interested in taking advantage of your error and stopping the bout early.
Kansas State and Notre Dame don't share the same skill set. K-State's offense is good, especially with a fully healthy Collin Klein, but it's best because of its extreme care with the football, and not in the same stratosphere as Oregon's for explosiveness. And the Wildcats are not as good on defense on a per-play basis as Oregon despite facing 70 fewer plays and dealing with far less garbage time stat-padding.
Notre Dame's got the best defense of the three, of course, but the Irish have steadfastly refused to score more than 30 points since doing so against Miami in the first week of October. (Everett Golson being a national championship quarterback would be even stranger than Craig Krenzel being one.)
And while Notre Dame's more likely to beat Oregon, I think, because the Irish's talent level is closer to Oregon's and they have the run defense to do it, the Wildcats are more likely to see the Ducks in Miami, with just a trip to Baylor to feast on that dreadful defense and a home game against resurgent Texas left. Notre Dame has Wake Forest in South Bend, a gimme, but must travel to USC for a tough finale. Matt Barkley, Robert Woods, and Marqise Lee might be eyeing their NFL Draft stock and will test the Domers' suspect secondary, and Lane Kiffin's charges will know the game is a possible season-spoiler and play accordingly.
Notre Dame will have to win that game and hope Kansas State loses, because no amount of national columnist nostalgia for Notre Dame's halcyon years will be enough to push the Domers past unbeaten K-State, and nothing Notre Dame does is going to stop unbeaten Oregon from getting one of the two spots in the final BCS standings as the Ducks' back-loaded schedule begins to reward them.
And while we're thinking about rewards: that cancelled home-and-home series between Oregon and Kansas State was smart for both schools ... and yet it's still going to cost one or the other some BCS money.
As Alicia Jessop notes at Forbes, Oregon and K-State didn't have a buyout for that game, and would make just as much as Rose Bowl or Fiesta Bowl participants as BCS National Championship Game foes, because BCS payouts are the same across bowls under the current contract.
The Ducks and Wildcats could stand to make more by opening the door for a second Pac-12 or Big 12 BCS participant, but presumptive challengers like USC, Oklahoma, and Texas have spit the bit to varying degrees, leaving the door open for an SEC team to snake an at-large spot that means the SEC's major loss when it comes to the BCS in 2012 should be the cessation of the conference's absurd title streak, not a dip in revenue.
Look at Jason Kirk's bowl projections: Oklahoma sneaks into the Fiesta Bowl, but there's no second Pac-12 team in sight. Meanwhile, Clemson, which has played no team of national consequence but Florida State, could be a BCS at-large team by virtue of just not losing to bad teams (something it has in common with every SEC team in the BCS top 10) and taking care of South Carolina at home (something LSU and Florida did when the Gamecocks had Marcus Lattimore).
The Pac-12 is more likely to have only one BCS participant than the Big 12, both because the only logical landing spots for non-Arizona Pac-12 teams are the Rose Bowl and the title games, unless bowls want to take a bath on a team that won't travel as well as a Midwestern power, and because Oregon's road to Miami runs through the two teams most likely to get at-large berths in the next two weeks. The Big 12 could still get screwed if Notre Dame is gobbled up by the Fiesta and makes Big 12 teams less attractive, but that's less likely.
But if Kansas State had played Oregon, and lost, the winner of Kansas State-Texas and Oklahoma would both probably be BCS-bound. If Oregon had played K-State and lost, there would still be a chance that Stanford or Oregon State could knock off the Ducks and give the Pac-12 two worth teams. The likelihood of one conference getting iced out would still exist, but it wouldn't be as good as the likelihood we presently have.
In the end, having six very good teams is better for a conference's hopes of getting BCScrilla than having one or two great ones, and because a team's hopes are tied to a conference's, this BCS season is likely to be more financially rewarding for Kentucky than Oregon.
The spoils of victory are strange fruit.
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