HURT: Bama a force of nature, but not perfect
It was a most imperfect day, a soggy, sloppy mess that started drizzly, turned thunderous and ended with every remaining player, fan and official soaked to the bone. There was no warmth, no sunshine.
But was there a touch of perfection, a team "without a weakness," in the words of Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, on the field?
Alabama did not play perfectly, by any stretch. After building a 28-0 lead, the Crimson Tide seemed to lose interest during the lightning break, the way a cat eventually loses interest in a mouse, particularly this one, which was dead before the first quarter was over. Uncharacteristically, Alabama turned the ball over twice.
On the other hand, the Crimson Tide dominated with little need to use a vertical passing game and gave up virtually nothing to the Missouri offense. That was probably what prompted Pinkel's praise as he referred to Alabama as "that defense" more than once.
Regardless of whether Pinkel was genuinely lauding Alabama as one of the all-time greats or throwing out hyperbole that he knew would annoy his old college teammate, Nick Saban, the debate about Alabama will rage on. Even as Arkansas and Michigan win games, the argument now is that Alabama "hasn't played anybody." At this point, that carping may continue all the way to Atlanta and if Alabama gets there, and wins convincingly, then on to Miami.
In the interest of journalism, I did not sit in Missouri's warm, cozy press box Saturday. Instead, I descended into the stadium, to see just how foul the conditions really were. They were terrible - wet and cold and unpleasant. But Alabama didn't seem bothered. And the more I endured the miserable weather, the more it occurred to me that the feeling must be somewhat similar to what opponents are feeling these days when they play Alabama. It is unpleasant, and there isn't much you can do to stem the unpleasantness. Even taking Pinkel's words with a grain of salt, there is a certain echo in "looking at the film" and not finding a weakness and in looking at a weather radar and seeing the storm clouds coming. There is not really much you can do about it, and once it starts, it becomes a test of endurance, with one eye on the clock, until you can get out of the stadium and into a nice hot bath.
At the same time, just as there was the flash of lightning that brought everything to a halt, there was a sudden, frightening, illuminating moment on the field as well. It came when quarterback AJ McCarron, playing on a sloppy field, got hit from outside his line of vision and did not immediately get up. There were breathless moments among Alabama fans then, and, while there was a collective exhaling when McCarron went back in on the next offensive series, there was also a slightly ominous feel to it, like the feeling that comes with distant thunder. There was no question that McCarron needed to be back in the game, with Alabama ahead 28-10 and its momentum momentarily lost. There was, clearly, a whiff of mortality about it, in terms of Alabama's season. There was an acknowledgment that McCarron is crucial, irreplacecable, that no matter what Pinkel or anyone else might think, McCarron is essential to the Crimson Tide's championship hopes. Alabama could win games with one of its inexperienced backups, running the ball and playing defense at an even more atavistic level than the one it is on currently. But the Crimson Tide couldn't do it without him every single time.
Against a Missouri team without its starting quarterback, Saturday's result was as inescapable as the day's dismal clouds producing rain. But whether it established Alabama as untouchable - particularly in that scary moment when McCarron lay on the rain-soaked turf - is not as cut-and-dried a proposition as Pinkel made it out to be.
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