The 2016 Alabama Crimson Tide allowed 14 points… to the Texas A&M Aggies.
They scored 33.
The Tide surrendered 43 to the Ole Miss Rebels on the road… but posted 48.
Had those two versions of the Alabama defense taken the field in Tiger Stadium on Saturday night in Baton Rouge, Nick Saban would have lost… but it didn’t.
Such is the dialogal nature of sports.
Cliches are cliches because they’re true. The familiar phrases we’ve heard for decades as sports fans endure because they point to central realities of The Games People Play. They’re subject to overuse, but there’s a reason they possess a measure of staying power in the language of sports.
The phrase we hear so often at this stage of a college football season is “knowing how to win.” My colleague, the great Wendell Barnhouse, very deftly and appropriately tucked the phrase into his reaction to the Texas-Texas Tech game on Saturday. What rational analyst wouldn’t want to amplify this core part of college football martial arts? The jiujitsu which creates high-level success is built on a mastery of circumstances and surroundings.
Alabama and Clemson — defending title-game participants headed on a collision course for another one — don’t merely embody the ability to “know how to win.” What’s helpful in expanding this discussion, and more specifically, going beyond the realm of a cliche, is that Alabama finds a way to say the right words in the dialogue of sports competition.
The beginning of this piece pointed to Bama’s sixth sense, a nose for victory shared by Clemson and understood well by Urban Meyer at Ohio State.
A good Major League Baseball team should win when it scores five runs. A bad team should lose when it scores only one.
A good NBA team should win when it scores 110 points. A bad team should lose when it scores 85.
Yet, in the flow and churn of competition over the course of days and weeks and months, human beings — not yet robots — won’t produce with machine-like consistency. Opponents, different in character from one week to the next, shape unique matchups and respond with their own particular mixtures of strengths and weaknesses. Ole Miss is an offense-first team, LSU a defense-first team. Alabama wasn’t going to play those two foes the same… and it couldn’t afford to.
Alabama trailed Ole Miss by 21. It never trailed LSU. Different road games brought forth different challenges. The Tide certainly looked shaky for stretches of each game. Perfection is not something to be expected in collegiate athletics. Yet, in these fiercely fought but flawed football fights, Alabama eventually gained leverage and — listen up, LSU — actually translated that leverage into a scoreboard advantage. Whereas the Tigers never could turn good field position into points, Alabama used a turnover to get a great drive start near midfield and score the field goal which tucked the Bayou Bengals into bed.
In order to appreciate Alabama winning a 10-0 and a 48-43 game and a 33-14 game in the same season — much as Clemson won 19-13 at Auburn and 42-36 against Louisville — one must consider life on the other side of the tracks.
Notre Dame lost 50-47 and 10-3 games this season. The Irish lost 17-10 at home when their offense gave up points to Stanford. They lost 28-27 to Navy on Saturday when their offense collected only six possessions. Whether their offense was impotent or imposing on the given day, the Irish very genuinely found a way to lose.
The instructive point to emphasize here is that these games are not foregone conclusions. The excellence of the winning team — like the reputation it cultivates and reinforces each time it repeats the feat — simply leads us to completely trust that it will come through when placed in a competitive cauldron.
2016 Alabama has not been 1995 Nebraska or 2001 Miami on its (seemingly inevitable) march to another title. The Tide, in one or more dimensions, have played noticeably deficient games along the way. Scoring only 10 points should normally lead to a defeat. Yet, on one night against one opponent in one situation, Alabama made it stand up. Alabama became the NBA team which scores only 85 but allows just 78. Alabama became the MLB team which scores only one run but pitches a shutout.
Normally, Result X would happen… but in the always dialogal nature of sports, Alabama — as Clemson has done the past 1.7 seasons — had the last and best word. What Bama and Clemson are, Notre Dame, Michigan State and UCLA are not.
Michigan State has lost a game this season when scoring 40 points at home… and when scoring 6.
UCLA lost 52-45 to Utah and 20-10 to Colorado on a night when its defense forced multiple turnovers and generally stood on its head.
Why do cliches persist? “Knowing how to win” isn’t as vague as one might think.
Being able to win a 10-0 game just as surely and as confidently as a 48-43 shootout is precisely what marks Alabama (like Clemson) as the team which always merits trust in a moment of — if not crisis — discernible concern.