What was never, for one minute, uneven and disjointed: DeVonta Smith and the Rolex that is the Alabama offense. That’s easy and obvious to say following Monday night’s masterpiece, a 52-24 decision that left Ohio State some combination of smeared across the turf and blinking at the blur that just sailed by.
But that victory in the College Football Playoff’s national championship game at Hard Rock Stadium outside Miami was a single frame in a season-long movie that’s worth watching – over and over again. The pandemic defined nearly everything about this season – what conferences started when, which games were canceled, moments when it was fair to wonder whether any of it was worth it, and at what cost. Through all that, appreciate Alabama.
“We set this as a goal to potentially be the greatest team to ever play,” said Mac Jones, the quarterback. “I think we made a valid statement.”
That’s heady stuff, and there’s a recency bias given what we just witnessed. But parse through Alabama’s schedule and its roster. On offense, who has been better? Jones might be on to something.
Smith is the highlight, the wisp of a wide receiver and Heisman winner who the Buckeyes found so confounding to cover they ran everyone from elite cornerbacks to, um, lumbering middle linebackers at him, all to no avail. Whatever ink is spilled praising him isn’t enough, and the only shame is that the numbers he rang up – 12 catches for 215 yards and three touchdowns in the first half – didn’t become more preposterous because he suffered a hand injury in the third quarter.
“Heaven knows what he’d have done if he’d have played the whole game,” said Nick Saban, the coach who won his seventh national title.
So add it up. Even as the Tide downshifted in the fourth quarter – by which time Smith wore a heavy bandage on his dislocated finger and a T-shirt on his back, the game in the bag – they rang up 621 yards. They have Jones at quarterback, and he was a Heisman finalist who looked like one in throwing for 464 yards and five touchdowns. They have Najee Harris at running back, and he was a Heisman finalist who looked like one in grinding for 79 yards on the ground and catching seven passes for 79 yards, scoring three times overall.
“The offense was dynamic,” Saban said. “And that’s what made the difference.”
Put aside the pandemic. That all makes for the best offense college football has seen since … since … well, since LSU last year.
Yes, some of this is a generational development, the imprint of an era. College offenses now spread defenses as if they’re the last spoonful of peanut butter at the bottom of the jar, yet somehow has to be enough to cover an entire slice. Saban is a defensive coach by trade, but even he understood that the path to his sixth title in Tuscaloosa wasn’t by putting eight men in the box on defense. It’s taking the nation’s most talented offensive players – and then creating mismatches with defenses.
“I think ball has changed,” Saban said. “It’s a little more wide-open, a little more spread. This team has adapted, and we’ve changed with it.”
Last year, that change was represented by LSU’s Joe Burrow at quarterback, Clyde Edwards-Helaire as a do-everything back and Justin Jefferson as a 111-catch receiver. In winning the national title, the Tigers ran up 568.9 yards and 48.4 points per game. Those are stunning, record-setting numbers. They seemed an offense for a generation.
The answer, from 2020 Alabama: 541.6 yards and 48.5 points per game, the latter an SEC record. It’s worth pointing out, too, that LSU had on its schedule Northwestern State and Utah State, nonconference pushovers that are the kind of staple appetizers – and stat-padders – that make up a typical college football schedule.
Yet 2020 Alabama had no such cupcake, because in the midst of the pandemic, the SEC decided to play only the SEC. Therefore, the entirety of Alabama’s nonconference schedule: Notre Dame and Ohio State, both in the CFP. Neither could stay within two scores – which merely puts them in a club with 12 of the Tide’s 13 opponents. The Tide’s average margin of victory against that slate: 29 points.
“I think we’re the best team to ever play,” Jones said. “There’s no other team that will ever play an SEC schedule like that again.”
Need more evidence of total offensive domination? Take this last quantification: Alabama played 52 quarters this season. It scored in 50 of them.
“We had a mission,” Smith said. “Everybody wanted to end things the right way. We just all came to work every day and put in the work, and we go the result that we wanted.”
So among the teams that played 12 games and the teams that played eight, there was no comparison, in 2020, to Alabama. Turn, then, to history. Maybe the 2001 Miami Hurricanes. Yes, they won the national title. But get a load of this roster.
The running backs: Clinton Portis, Willis McGahee, Frank Gore and Najeh Davenport. The top wide receiver: Andre Johnson. The tight end: Jeremy Shockey. Bryant McKinnie protected the quarterback. The defense was led by Ed Reed at safety and Jonathan Vilma at linebacker. That’s not a college team. That’s either a Pro Bowl roster or Mel Kiper’s Big Board.
They haven’t taken an NFL snap, but couldn’t this Alabama team nearly match that group? Saban has coached two Crimson Tide running backs who won the Heisman – Mark Ingram and Derrick Henry. It’s possible Harris is better than either was in Tuscaloosa.
Since Julio Jones was selected sixth overall in the 2011 NFL draft, Alabama has had five wide receivers who were first-round picks – including Henry Ruggs II and Jerry Jeudy just last year. As a college player, Smith tops them all – more catches made, more yards gained, more jaws to the floor. And had Jaylen Waddle not suffered an ankle injury in late October, defenses couldn’t have focused on Smith – and whiffed anyway – but would have had to further spread their resources, because Waddle could still go in the first round.
Throw in Alex Leatherwood as a first-round tackle, Christian Barmore as a defensive lineman who manhandled the Buckeyes, and Patrick Surtain II as a cornerback who scares people away from throwing at him, and it’s not hard to envision a time in the future when you look at that list and say, “Wait, they were all on the same college team?”
For Saban, that’s really what this was about: the team. In November, Saban tested positive for the coronavirus and missed the Tide’s rivalry game against Auburn. Alabama had a three-week gap between games because the virus disrupted programs throughout the SEC. Yet in January, when the most unusual of seasons still left the most Alabama of goals within sight, his players made history.
“I think there’s quite a bit to write about when it comes to the legacy of a team,” he said.
Keep writing about, keep reading about, keep appreciating this Alabama offense. It might be a generation – or a year – until we see another like it.