ARLINGTON, Texas – There is rarely a single moment in a football game that captures the difference between the two teams on the pitch so perfectly, a snapshot that so completely describes what one team does to an entire sport.
When Alabama running back Najee Harris skied off the turf at AT&T Stadium in the first quarter on Friday, clearing the head of a Notre Dame cornerback en route to another big win, another quick score, another performance from Alabama that made a tough game seem ridiculously easy, there was only one conclusion to be drawn.
No one else in college football can fly that high.
Right now, there is nothing unusual or surprising about another trip to Alabama at the National Championship game on January 11 in South Florida. After Crimson Tide’s 31-14 win over Notre Dame in the college football playoff semifinals, Alabama will be there for the eighth time in 14 years under Nick Saban.
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But what does this version of Alabama do and how does it do it? Not normal; not normal at all.
It wasn’t enough for Nick Saban to dominate college football for more than a decade. He’s gone and hacked the sport, smashed the matrix and achieved nirvana with a team whose best is perhaps the best that ever existed.
This Alabama doesn’t physically impose itself on soccer games as much as it goes through them, daring its opponents to reach a level they’ve never played before, then hold it down for 60 minutes without making a mistake. The Alabama, on the other hand, can take off at cruise altitude and stay there for as long as it wants. The game becomes calm in the face of tension.
Alabama is not unbeatable. There can be lulls and lapses, opportunities to break the door. Notre Dame crept towards her for a few minutes on Friday at the start of the second half as it was a 21-7 game before the stress of trying to play perfect football for so long became too much. In the SEC Championship, we saw Florida try to turn it into a tennis game where a punt was like a break of serve. It didn’t work out either.
We’ll find out in 10 days if Clemson or the state of Ohio can maintain the kind of level it takes to actually beat Alabama, not just stick with them for a half or three quarters. But as talented as these teams are, they may run into the same problem: For Alabama, everything just got easier.
It is the luxury of its offensive, which has gears in more dimensions impossible to explain. The pure speed of DeVonta Smith, who was almost always open against Notre Dame and made catches even when he wasn’t, totaling seven for 130 yards and three touchdowns. The durability and physicality of Harris, which left fans gasping for air at the replay of his obstacle on the scoreboard here even an hour after it happened. The absolute cold of quarterback Mac Jones, who seems impossible to make uncomfortable. And the plan of coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who knows when it’s time to speed up and go.
Notre Dame had the bravado to take the ball first in this semifinal, hoping to make a jump on the Crimson Tide. Instead, it was 14-0 in Alabama after two possessions, 12 offensive plays and 176 yards. At one point at the end of the first half, Alabama was averaging 14.4 otherworldly yards per game, a number that was eventually brought down to the still absurd 7.95.
And it wasn’t even about Notre Dame playing poorly or not belonging to the Playoffs as some critics will howl after a second semi-final loss in the past three years. The Fighting Irish were for the most part and did what was necessary to limit Alabama’s attack with efficient running play and time consuming workouts.
It didn’t matter because Alabama are totally unresponsive and unresponsive to everything they’ve faced this season. Like few other teams in college football history, the Crimson Tide has the luxury of knowing their options are endless and their best is untouchable.
With Saban embracing this offensive system and recruiting this depth of skill, the entire sport paradigm has been turned upside down even as the results look so normal. Once again, Alabama has jumped on everyone.