ATLANTA — We have our favorite. And what a shocker: It’s Alabama.
All season long in college football, the big-picture questions have centered around the first-ever College Football Playoff. Which four teams will get in? Which conference champions will be terribly wronged? Does the selection committee prefer pizza or Chinese during its marathon weekly meetings?
Perhaps we were missing the point just a bit. The biggest question should’ve been the same one we ask at some time or another every year: Who’s going to stop the Crimson Tide from winning the whole thing?
The No. 1 Tide (12-1) were far from perfect in a 42-13 victory over Missouri in the championship game of the Southeastern Conference. Offensively, they failed for a while to keep the pedal on the metal after building a 21-3 first-half lead. Defensively, they allowed Tigers quarterback Maty Mauk and wide receiver Jimmie Hunt to connect on three long passes that kept the result in semi-doubt.
But Nick Saban’s team managed to drive home its message, which isn’t simply that Alabama still reigns supreme in the SEC. It’s that Alabama — which has won three of the last five national titles and has ascended to No. 1 in the rankings in each of the last seven seasons — remains a singular program in the sport.
Better than everybody else? Usually.
Scarier than everybody else? Always.
“This team here, we just fight,” said senior linebacker Xzavier Dickson. “And that’s every play.”
The postgame locker-room scene was less a celebration than a realization: America is going to expect Alabama to win this thing. But isn’t that everyday life in Tuscaloosa, the center of the college football universe? Isn’t this just like it was for Saban and company in 2009 and 2011 and 2012?
“Different team, different players,” said wide receiver Amari Cooper, who caught 12 passes Saturday for 83 yards.
Alabama and Missouri last played in 2012, a 42-10 Tide romp in Columbia. That score was a lot like this one, but the Tigers weren’t nearly as good then as they are now and, truth be told, the Tide probably aren’t quite as good now as they were then.
The 2012 Alabama team, which demolished Notre Dame by four touchdowns in the championship game, was simply unbeatable by season’s end. It was a nearly flawless team, or at least that’s how it was perceived — exceptional at essentially everything, on both sides of the ball.
The 2014 Tide aren’t as dominant in the run game, although Derrick Henry (141 yards, two trouchdowns) and T.J. Yeldon are one of the better tandems in the nation. These Tide aren’t as famous at quarterback, though Blake Sims (262 yards passing, two touchdowns) has thrown for more yards this season than AJ McCarron or any other player in program history ever did.
Alabama has the nation’s best receiver in Cooper and a defense that’s getting better all the time yet, for the first time in seven years, didn’t lead in the SEC in fewest yards and points allowed.
But Alabama’s A-minus is better than nearly any other team’s A-plus. The Tide are rolling into the playoff. Why should anybody be the slightest bit surprised?
“It’s great that we made it. I’m glad we get to represent the SEC,” said senior guard Arie Kouandjio. “From here? Whatever we have to do. Whoever we have to play.”