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Alabama, the phantom juggernaut: How the SEC has left the Crimson Tide overrated

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In a year without a truly great college football team, Alabama appears to be the closest thing. And close doesn't count.

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

There's a tendency among fans and media members alike to uncritically reward the winner of a sensational game with much of the goodwill garnered for prevailing in it. Call it the Winner's Halo.

Just this year in college football, donning the Winner's Halo has worked wonders for West Virginia, seen as unstoppable early in the year despite its astonishingly porous defense; for Florida, which won three exciting games against SEC foes with scant contribution from its offense; for Alabama-toppling Johnny Manziel, who took the Heisman lead for good after Texas A&M's defense forced three turnovers and held Alabama under four yards per carry; for Oregon, which vivisected and was vivisected by USC in nearly equal measure; for Notre Dame, which held off Matt Barkley-less USC in Los Angeles with the aid of some bone-headed playcalling; and, finally and most importantly, for Alabama, which escaped a team that played better than it on the road with one classic drive and very nearly managed to lose a game in which it ran for 350 yards.

My descriptions of those games are obviously not the ones that many will have for those contests. But they aren't incorrect, and they illustrate a point: winning in showy and exciting fashion will help those tasked with creating and maintaining narratives about your team and player peg their stories to glory. (Maybe this is part of why "letdown games" exist: fans and media overrate the winners of very good games, and are surprised when a conqueror still has flaws.)

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Alabama's wearing the Halo right now, and that plus the recency bias (Alabama played the last best game of the year) and the seductive power of reflected greatness (who doesn't want to anoint a team as a dynasty?) will go a long way toward making sure this Crimson Tide looks like a team on the verge of historic greatness.

Look harder at the roll the Tide has been on this year, though. For me, doing that makes it hard to conclude that 2012 'Bama is better than, say, 2011 Alabama was, or definitively better than the best teams in the country this year.

Furthermore, it makes it difficult to conclude that 2012 'Bama isn't at least a fair bit overrated.

Alabama 41, Michigan 14

This game was over when Alabama held a 21-0 lead after the first quarter, then really, really over when the Tide stretched that lead to 31-0. And there's no telling how bad the final score might have gotten had Alabama gone full bore for 60 minutes. But two Alabama interceptions in the first half produced 14 points in that game (one was a pick-six; another started a Tide drive on the Michigan 17), and a coverage bust on DeAndrew White helped a third touchdown happen; A.J. McCarron completed just 11 of 21 passes in that game, and Alabama went 3-for-10 on third down. And time has revealed Michigan, the nation's No. 8 team coming into this game, as a mediocre-to-good squad: the Wolverines have one win over a top 25 team, and it came at home over Northwestern with the help of a Hail Mary.

Alabama 35, Western Kentucky 0

Western Kentucky turned the ball over three times on fumbles to the Tide in the first half, and Alabama got 14 points off of them. But Alabama only ran for 3.2 yards per carry, went 4-for-10 on third down, and was held to a surprisingly low 328 total yards in the contest. Oh, and this was a Western Kentucky team that many thought the world of after it beat Kentucky in overtime, which got it and Willie Taggart the Winner's Halo, briefly. That Western Kentucky lost three straight later in the year to Middle Tennessee State, Florida Atlantic, and Louisiana-Lafayette is slightly less common knowledge.

Alabama 52, Arkansas 0

The first of two Alabama Beats The Brakes Off A Team Without Its Starting Quarterback Specials, in which the Crimson Tide stymied a Razorbacks offense led by Brandon Allen and Brandon Mitchell and forced five turnovers. Arkansas could have made this game 7-3 immediate after Alabama took its first lead, but its kicker missed a 41-yard field goal, and a second drive into Alabama territory in the first half was ended by a pick on the play after it crossed midfield. And Arkansas finished 4-8 on the season, with wins over Jacksonville State, Auburn, Kentucky, and Tulsa ‐ all, save Auburn, at home.

Alabama 40, Florida Atlantic 7

Alabama led 30-0 at halftime, held Florida Atlantic to 110 yards of total offense, and didn't allow the lone FAU touchdown until the last three minutes of the fourth quarter. Florida Atlantic went 3-9 in 2012, getting its wins over Wagner, Troy ... and Western Kentucky, the second-best team Alabama beat outside the SEC. And one week prior to getting crushed by Alabama, the Owls got nuked by Georgia, which rolled up 713 yards (on an insane 11.32 yards per play) in a 56-20 win despite committing four turnovers.

Alabama 33, Ole Miss 14

This game featured the first time Alabama had trailed all year, even if it was only for 15 seconds. But it was also a case of Alabama not putting a team completely away: Ole Miss trailed 27-7 at halftime, but shaved the lead to 27-14 in the third quarter, forced a fumble on the next defensive series that was recovered by Alabama, and got the ball at its own 44 with a chance to reduce the lead to one possession. Alabama stiffened and added two field goals late, but Ole Miss (now 6-6, but with near-misses against Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, and LSU), the first decent SEC team 'Bama played, certainly wasn't destroyed by a juggernaut.

Alabama 42, Missouri 10

The second Alabama Beats The Brakes Off A Team Without Its Starting Quarterback Special was both better (Missouri had three rushing yards after sacks; Corbin Berkstresser completed 12 of 29 passes; Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon each ran for over 140 yards) and worse (a torrential rainstorm and two Alabama turnovers helped keep Missouri in the game) than the first. 5-7 Missouri is also not very good: it beat Arizona State and UCF by a combined nine points, beat Tennessee and Kentucky to become the SEC East's tallest midget, and only came within 21 points against a ranked team at Florida during the Gators' offensive brownout.

Alabama 44, Tennessee 13

Alabama was never not in control against the 5-7 Vols (one SEC win over Kentucky at home! one win over a bowl-eligible team against N.C. State!), and gained 532 yards on them. This sounds a lot more impressive before you learn that Tennessee gave up 555 to Florida, and 721 to Troy.

Alabama 38, Mississippi State 7

Much like Tennessee, Mississippi State has one win over a bowl-eligible team. Unlike Tennessee, Mississippi State played a lot of bad teams early, ran its record to 7-0, and duped a lot of people into thinking that a résumé that has a win over Middle Tennessee State as its first bullet point is impressive. Another garbage-time touchdown prevented another Alabama shutout, putting Mississippi State in the esteemed company of ... Florida Atlantic.

Alabama 21, LSU 17

The greatest escape in college football this side of Johnny Football rallying Texas A&M back against Louisiana Tech and Ole Miss was set up by Alabama getting run over for the better part of four quarters. LSU outgained Alabama by 104 yards, forced two turnovers, went 10-for-20 on third down and held Alabama to 1-for-9, and prevented Amari Cooper, playing hurt, from having a single catch; LSU's the only team to do that last thing, and even if the Tigers only get so much credit for limiting a hampered player, Cooper's absence certainly didn't help Alabama's passing game in Death Valley.

And yet Alabama won that game. Maybe that had to do with three Tigers drives within the Alabama 30 that produced no points?

Texas A&M 29, Alabama 24

I've written about this game at length before, so I won't belabor the point: Alabama got beaten by a team that followed the Beat 'Bama Formula, and could have beaten 'Bama more decisively. Taylor Bertolet missed a 37-yard field goal late, and A&M went for it on a 4th-and-6 and failed to convert. Side note: Johnny Manziel is the best quarterback to visit Bryant-Denny Stadium this year, just nudging out ... Tyler Russell, I guess?

Alabama 49, Western Carolina 0

The Tide took out their frustrations on the Catamounts, delivering a 49-0 beatdown to an FCS team that recorded its only 2012 win over Mars Hill, a Division II school with around 1,000 undergraduate students. Still, Western Carolina gained more yardage on 'Bama than Missouri, Arkansas, and Florida Atlantic did.

Alabama 49, Auburn 0

Alabama finished its 7-1 run in the SEC by beating by far the conference's worst team. (You may say Kentucky, but I say "Kentucky beat Kent State, a 10-2 team, by 33 points, and Auburn beat Louisiana-Monroe, New Mexico State, and Alabama A&M.) Auburn mustered 163 yards, tying Western Carolina. The score was 49-0 six minutes into the third quarter. Auburn won a national title two years ago, but it seems like 200.

Alabama 32, Georgia 28

The most impressive Alabama win over a good team (and, well, Georgia's only wins over teams with winning records came against Vanderbilt and Florida) might have been a loss had the Bulldogs opted to spike the ball on first-and-goal with 15 seconds remaining.

Of the SEC's six 10-win teams, Alabama played three: among the five others, only Georgia and South Carolina played just three. Those six teams were the only ones that could play fewer than three, though (because they all had just two 10-win divisional opponents), and Alabama and Georgia only played three because they met in the SEC Championship Game. (Florida, LSU, and Texas A&M each played four; only Florida won three games against 10-win SEC teams.)

Of the SEC's five seven-loss teams, Alabama played four, ducking only Kentucky, and played two without their starting quarterbacks. (LSU only played two; Texas A&M and Florida only played three.)

Of the SEC's six teams in the BCS top 10, no team got more of a bump from the SEC's scheduling shake-up that shielded its great teams from other great teams than Alabama, which thumped Michigan and Mississippi State before everyone realized it was eminently thumpable; had a road trip to Arkansas that should've been a top-10 game reduced to a laugher by Bobby Petrino's injury of the ... heart and Tyler Wilson's injury; and got a Georgia team that won the SEC East because it beat Florida and didn't have to play the West's top three in the title game instead of a Florida team that suddenly looks terrifying and beat a rugged schedule around its loss to Georgia.

And if you're going to blame Northern Illinois' BCS break-in on teams that would have otherwise been top-10 outfits having down years, you should probably also consider that the "six SEC teams in the final BCS top 10" talking point was facilitated by that, too.

Alabama's offense, so devoted to the concept of balance, has gotten away from that in the passing game, with Amari Cooper becoming the go-to option to an absurd degree: Cooper has 20 of the 57 receptions recorded by Alabama players in the last four games, and no other player has more than eight. And Alabama's running game has faced exactly one rushing defense in the top 20 on a yards-per-play basis (No. 10 LSU's), and ran up its staggering numbers on Saturday against a Georgia unit that isn't in the top 60 in that category.

Alabama's defense has proven to be great against bad teams and far more mortal against good ones: it's allowed more than five yards per play to LSU, Texas A&M, and Georgia, and yielded 6.25 YPP to the Bulldogs. And the insane 24.5 percent rate of opponent third down conversions Alabama posted in 2011 to lead the nation is a distant memory, with 'Bama allowing conversions on 32.4 percent of third downs in 2012.

Take all of that together, and look at more than the absolutely scintillating Alabama win we saw in a certified college football classic on Saturday, and it's very hard to see Alabama as a colossus astride the college football world. This is a very good team, to be sure, but it is a phantom juggernaut with a reputation that outstrips its record. 2012 Alabama reminds me a little of 2009 Florida, a very good team which racked up wins against mediocre-to-bad teams and met its demise against a more motivated crew that hit it like a Peterbilt.

I think 2012 Alabama is better than those Gators were, and I think it should be a slight favorite over Notre Dame in the BCS Championship Game, and I'm certain that Nick Saban at the helm of this Crimson Tide team is a much better thing than Urban Meyer leading that Florida team was.

But I'm also pretty sure there won't be a truly great team on the field in Miami come that Tuesday in January. And very good teams beat other very good teams all the time.