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8 teams that could beat Alabama

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The Tide are wildly good, but they’re not invincible.

NCAA Football: Alabama at Tennessee Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

Alabama looks more like the Death Star than ever. You aren’t just imagining that the Tide are even scarier than usual. They’ve shown only the most mild of weaknesses, and you have to cherry pick to find them. Their quarterback is playing at something higher than a Heisman level, if such a thing exists. They’re also supremely fun.

If you’re resigned to Alabama going 15-0 and taking a third championship in four years, that’s fair. But nothing’s a done deal yet. A few teams have a genuine shot.

These are the teams that could most plausibly beat the 2018 Tide:

LSU

This is certainly the likeliest loss on Bama’s regular season schedule ... relatively speaking. S&P+ gives the 14.5-point Vegas underdogs a 26 percent chance at the home upset, maybe the biggest spread a top-four team has ever faced at home.

LSU’s chances center around its tremendous pass defense. The Tigers are 6th in Defensive Passing S&P+, and they’ve done an especially good job limiting explosive downfield throws.

That makes sense, given that the Tigers have stacked up what feels like 600 blue-chip defensive back recruits. Can anyone stop Tua Tagovailoa and his four elite receivers? If LSU can’t, the answer might be no.

Clemson

A fourth consecutive Playoff meeting between the two is very much in play.

Clemson’s better than any non-Alabama team in college football. It has a five-star QB with a golden arm, a hell-raising defensive line, and enough knowledge of Bama to give the Tide a serious run. S&P+ says the teams are more evenly matched than usual this year.

How closely matched Alabama and Clemson have been

Year Bama S&P+ rank Clemson S&P+ rank Proj. Bama-Clemson margin Actual margin
Year Bama S&P+ rank Clemson S&P+ rank Proj. Bama-Clemson margin Actual margin
2015 1 2 Bama -1 Bama -5
2016 1 2 Bama -6.1 Clemson -4
2017 2 8 Bama -4.6 Bama -18
2018 1 2 Bama -1 ?

Everything I said about LSU’s defense maybe making things hard on Tagovailoa also applies to Clemson, though the two units would go about it in different ways.

Clemson’s advantage is its front, while LSU’s is its secondary. Both can create problems for a passing game, but Clemson has an even better chance because its strength is going up against the Tide offensive line instead of Tagovailoa specifically. You also have to shut down Bama’s ground game, and Clemson ranks No. 1 in S&P+ run defense.

Oklahoma

As great as Alabama’s offense now is, the Sooners are still No. 1 in S&P+ on that side of the ball. Lincoln Riley and Kyler Murray are magical together, and it’s possible the Sooners could drop 40 on Bama. They did recently put 45 on Georgia in regulation, after all.

The obvious problem: Oklahoma’s defense might give up 70.

But if the Sooners score a little more than expected and some weird stuff happens, who knows? OU beat Bama in 2014, after all. Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb are probably better than the guys who’d be covering them, and Murray’s legs could force Alabama’s linebackers into enough conflict to open things up elsewhere.

The likeliest outcome would be Alabama winning by a basketball score. The Sooners can put on enough of a fireworks show to maybe, maybe pull off an upset.

OK, that’s three, and that’s probably it. But I have to fill out an entire post, so here are some other teams that could plausibly challenge the Tide.

The 1985 Chicago Bears

This is one of the closest things to a difficult college matchup the ‘85 Bears could have. Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense makes it more or less impossible to run, but Tagovailoa can throw on a unit used to playing with only three traditionally deployed defensive backs, assuming he finds any time in the pocket. If Ryan’s defense adapts to Bama’s personnel and Mike Singletary responds well to Bama’s RPO game while playing against it for the first time ever, however, the Bears will shut down the Tide.

Walter Payton could be briefly annoyed by Bama’s stingy front, but he’d rip off big runs against a unit that’s only No. 61 in Rushing Marginal Explosiveness allowed. If Payton has success, I think Jim McMahon can complete at least 60 percent of his passes against a secondary that still lacks experience.

The 2018 Buffalo Bills

Alabama’s offense is arguably more talented, position by position:

The Bills undoubtedly have the better run game, but football is a passer’s game at the moment, and Alabama almost undoubtedly has the better passing game.

If you want to believe that there’s just too big a leap, or that, with its manhood challenged by having to play against a college team, the pro team would dial in and whoop ass or whatever, I can’t prove you wrong. Again, that’s the built-in glory of a debate like this.

But if you wanted to take the opposite side and claim that Bama’s passing game makes it better than at least one NFL offense, you’ve got some evidence on your side. That’s all I’m saying.

While Alabama would have the better quarterback by far, the Bills’ defense would win this game.

Remember that the Bills have drafted some of the most elite college defenders over the last few years, and then given them nominally professional training: Clemson end Shaq Lawson, LSU corner Tre’Davious White, Virginia Tech linebacker Tremaine Edmunds chief among them.

The 2007 New York Giants

They beat the ‘07 Patriots, the most recent major American football team to look this dominant, so they can beat anyone.

The Avengers

  • Hulk is unblockable, freeing up Iron Man, who is also unblockable.
  • Bama would get called for roughing the passer whenever it touched Captain America.
  • Unlike most ball carriers, Black Panther only becomes more dangerous with each touch, thanks to his suit storing up damage.
  • You can’t cover a tight end like Thor with a linebacker or a safety.
  • Saban’s emergency backup: recently fired coaches. Nick Fury has a magic space beeper that brings in better talent than Butch Jones.
  • Black Widow, a real Wes Welker type, is extremely deceptive in the open field.
  • Hawkeye would ruin Alabama’s field position with precision, heat-sinking punts. Yes, he’s from Iowa.

The 1996 SCLSU Mud Dogs

Alabama left tackle Jonah Williams is good, but he hasn’t dealt with an edge rusher like Bobby Boucher. If Boucher can get 16 sacks against West Mississippi, he can get five against the Tide.

But really, Bama’s probably just going to win.

I don’t mean to overcomplicate it.