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September 22, 2012

HURT: No shutout, but everything else was perfect

Most University of Alabama football fans, confident Florida Atlantic was not going to come into Bryant-Denny Stadium and pull the biggest upset in college football history on Saturday, filed in on a perfect day and only wanted to see one thing.

Nothing.

More specifically, they wanted to see the visiting Owls end up with zero on the scoreboard, extending Alabama's shutout string to a 1960-ish three games. At the same time, it would have nurtured the silly talk about how Alabama is on an entirely different plane from all other college football teams, a line of unreasonable reasoning perpetuated largely by ESPN's usually sharp Kirk Herbstreit this week when he joked about no team other than the San Francisco 49ers matching up with Alabama.

So a zero in the FAU scoring column wouldn't just make victory (which has somehow become an afterthought these days) a certainty. It would put Alabama in that unclassifiable "great" category, since you cannot, defensively speaking, do better than holding the other team to zero, not even if you are the greatest team of all time.

Alabama didn't do it this time. Florida Atlantic did put a late touchdown on the board, and they did it like stout fellows should, not settling for the balm of a field goal but twice going for fourth downs on the touchdown drives, plays that gave Alabama a chance to get off the field.

Alabama didn't. Florida Atlantic scored. And that is OK.

As Nick Saban explained after the game, the shutout string - as a stand-alone achievement - wasn't something the Crimson Tide coaches, the football version of nuclear scientists working at the molecular level - talked about very much. Just as no one within debris-scattering range of Saban talks about "BCS Championship" in September, no one talks about game results.

That isn't the object, except in the sense that if every play is perfect, then a shutout might result. So of course it is something to be desired - a perfect performance, or close to it.

But the shutout wasn't the be-all, end-all. It was more important, in the fourth quarter of a foregone conclusion, that young players see action. And, in a curious twist, because of the shutout streak, the action they saw, trying to keep FAU off the scoreboard, actually had some real game intensity. Their teammates were shouting encouragement.

The fans - and a creditable number stuck around well into the final quarter - were invested and cheering. Saban was alternately coaching, exhorting and berating a referee who incurred his wrath. It was about as far from SEC pressure as a situation could be, in terms of the outcome, but it didn't feel that way.

The fact FAU could find the end zone was a disappointment for those fans, and coaches and players, but one that might be outweighed by the lessons learned. Plus, it doesn't hurt for events to occasionally poke a hole in the "perfect" bubble.

Saban was more pleased with his team in this rout than he was two weeks ago when Western Kentucky was dispatched by a similar margin. That assessment was based on effort, not margin of victory. But it was still far from perfect, or celestial, or any of the adjectives that seem to be attaching themselves magnetically to Alabama's mighty hull.

There were passing game chances that went unexploited. There were trips to the red zone that ended in field goals instead of touchdowns. There were sacks of the quarterback. The defense didn't give up very much, but, for the first time this season, it didn't take anything away. Those aren't meant to be nitpicking criticisms, just part of maintaining a perspective that this stretch of the season is about improvement.

That applies to Alabama's younger players, obviously, but to the veterans as well. Could the first defense have stopped FAU at the end? The answer, almost certainly, is yes. But their test will come later.

So, there was a little disappointment, at least among the fans, that Alabama didn't quite deliver the goose egg on the scoreboard that it wanted to see. But in the process, it might have shown something that was well worth seeing.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or.205-722-0225.



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