Alabama's win over Notre Dame on Monday night was epic. Historic. And an afterthought.
There is no way to underestimate the difficulty of repeating as champion in any NCAA sport, particularly football. The rarity of the achievement cries out for recognition. Tremendous mental focus and physical toughness is required. Alabama displayed those qualities from the opening minutes, not just of Monday night's 42-14 win over Notre Dame but from the opening minutes of preparation last winter. Praise of such an accomplishment cannot be excessive.
But the truth is, Alabama won the national championship in Atlanta. Once Alabama defeated Georgia in what was truly college football's Game of the Year - to be fair, Alabama-LSU and Alabama-Texas A&M deserve votes for best game as well, but they lacked the postseason power of the SEC Championship Game - wise observers suspected that a BCS title would follow.
"We got here by 5 yards," Nick Saban said, recalling the end of the Georgia game. But once Alabama did get to Miami, the difference between the Crimson Tide and the competition looked more like 500 yards, or roughly what Alabama gained.
Not all observers are wise. Plenty of people, embittered by weariness of the Southeastern Conference's dominance or hoping against hope that Notre Dame was far better (or luckier) than it actually was, picked the Fighting Irish. The fact is, Notre Dame would have had a tough neutral-field time against any of the SEC's best six teams.
The Irish have a better understanding of that now.
"They're back-to-back national champs," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "That's what it looks like. Now we know. Now we have to take that next step."
That step, for Notre Dame or anyone else, will be a long one. Alabama is not just good, it is historically good. Because the winning streak is open-ended - and is there anything that says Alabama will not win the title again after the 2013 season? - it is not yet possible to fully evaluate just how great Alabama's accomplishment is. The accomplishment isn't over. Who knew how long the Roman Empire would last when Caesar ruled? That is where Alabama is now.
Thus, the greatest challenge: staying there.
"Regardless of the result this team achieved, they certainly exceeded every expectation we had for them," Saban said. "People talk about how difficult it is to win your first title, but what is really tough is to win the next one. There is always a sense of entitlement but this team was able to overcome that.
"There is no continuum for success. It is ongoing. A couple of days from now, we may have players going pro, we have to start preparing."
How did it happen? Maybe the little fourth-quarter on-field squabble between two of the team's stars, quarterback AJ McCarron and center Barrett Jones, provides some insight. The game, at that point, was over. Alabama might just as well have been pouring champagne on each other in the huddle before every play in the second half for all the difference it would have made. Instead, a misfire - McCarron had to call a timeout or take a delay of game penalty - led to angry words from the quarterback and a shove from the center. The battle of virtual brothers wasn't ego. Instead, it reflected that any lapse in concentration, any errors, any relaxation, could not be tolerated before time had elapsed.
Somewhere, there was joy - but only in the winning.
"I may not look it," Saban joked. "But I am happy as hell."
At least for a day.
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