Unanimous No. 1 Alabama Perpetuates a Standard of Excellence


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Alabama wide receiver ArDarius Stewart heading for a score in a 51-3 home victory over Mississippi State on Saturday. Stewart had eight receptions for 156 yards and three touchdowns.

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Marvin Gentry/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Being a sports fan is, fundamentally, about rooting for your team and rooting against your preferred villain. That could be your team’s main rival, or it could be the glamorous bandwagon squad that the great swelling masses have come to favor.

It is not rational. Nor are people. They are tribal.

But there are times when fans must band together in mutual appreciation. It happens when one team is so obviously transcendent that sports become less provincial and more aesthetic. Just as admiring Bach or Picasso is not the exclusive province of Germans or Spaniards, reveling in Alabama’s greatness should be something all college football fans can share.

Three of the four top teams — in both the Associated Press poll and the College Football Playoff rankings — lost on Saturday. Iowa beat Michigan on a last-second field goal, 14-13, and dropped the Wolverines (9-1) from second to fourth in the A.P. poll. Clemson (9-1) was upset at home by Pittsburgh, 43-42, and fell from third to fifth. The real paper tiger might turn out to be Washington (9-1), which cruised to a 9-0 start against a soft schedule before being dispatched by visiting Southern California, 26-13, and falling from fourth to seventh.

Alabama? The Crimson Tide won, 51-3, over Mississippi State. They are 10-0, with wins over three currently ranked teams. They have clinched a third straight berth in the Southeastern Conference title game, where they will be heavily favored against whatever relative mediocrity the other division offers up.

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Alabama defensive players including Da’Shawn Hand (9), Ryan Anderson (22) and Ronnie Harrison (15) stopping Mississippi State’s Aeris Williams. The Crimson Tide rank second in the nation in defense and scoring defense.

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Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Alabama is now the unanimous No. 1 in the A.P. poll — the former dissenter Scott Wolf of The Los Angeles Daily News has relented — and though the playoff selection committee does not release details of its votes, you can be sure all 12 members will have a good laugh over just who will receive the No. 1 slot come Tuesday night.

Could Alabama still lose this year? Of course. Auburn, ranked 18th, always comes to play in the Iron Bowl, which is Nov. 26 in Tuscaloosa. And the playoff promises stiff competition; several teams in the Big Ten and the Atlantic Coast Conference could well be Alabama’s equal this season.

But a loss, even if it were to deny Alabama a national title, would not diminish the consistent greatness that the program has achieved during the past decade.

The Crimson Tide’s four national titles in the past seven seasons are matched only by Notre Dame’s run in a strikingly different climate in the 1940s. Since Coach Nick Saban took over for the 2007 season, his team is 115-18 (counting five wins earned on the field but erased from the record books because of N.C.A.A. violations); knock off that first year, and it is 108-12.

We are at the point where many casual fans are able to recite all of Alabama’s losses in recent years: the two upsets by Ole Miss, the Johnny Manziel game, the lifeless Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma, the much more vivid Sugar Bowl against Ezekiel Elliott, the Cam Newton Iron Bowl and, of course, the so-called Kick Six (which quite likely sidetracked Alabama’s fifth title).

The SEC, considered by many the best college football conference, has essentially bent the knee. Louisiana State, a program that was rejuvenated 15 years ago under Saban, fired the extremely successful coach Les Miles in no small part because it had been one too many years since he had beaten Alabama. Ditto Georgia and Mark Richt, who was replaced by Saban’s longtime defensive coordinator, Kirby Smart.

Florida, the only program with more SEC title game appearances than Alabama, lost Urban Meyer more or less directly because of Saban; he has been replaced with two of Saban’s former assistants, first Will Muschamp (now South Carolina’s coach) and then Jim McElwain. And one of Tennessee’s former coaches is now Saban’s offensive coordinator.

Sense a pattern?

It is tempting to say that this year was supposed to be different. Reggie Ragland, the leader of Alabama’s top-ranked defense last year, was lost to the N.F.L. So too were the Heisman Trophy-winning tailback Derrick Henry and several other key members of a championship team. Smart left for Georgia. And for the third straight year, Saban faced uncertainty at quarterback before settling on a true freshman, Jalen Hurts.

The outcome has again been dominance. The offense has been more than simply efficient; Alabama actually leads the conference in points per game. It has the second-best defense and scoring defense in the Football Bowl Subdivision (Michigan’s is first). The Crimson Tide’s defense and special teams units have combined for 12 touchdowns in 10 games.

This is not just about football anymore. The Alabama dynasty represents a coach and a program realizing their potential to just about the fullest degree imaginable.

Alabama has advantages, including resources, location and the history and mystique behind that script letter A. But its biggest advantage over dozens of other of top-tier college football programs is one of its own making: Alabama, alone, never has to play Alabama.

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