ATLANTA — When a guitarist breaks into an impromptu solo in the middle of a band’s No. 1 hit in front of a packed house, you still know how the song will end. It’s the path to get there that leaves you intrigued.
Alabama was that guitarist Saturday afternoon in the SEC Championship Game, and it capped off an imperfect solo with a fitting end to its perfect 13-0 season.
The Crimson Tide made sweet music in their 54-16 win over Florida, mixing in four types of touchdowns in a game that resulted in the predicted blowout. Cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick returned an interception of Gator quarterback Austin Appleby 44 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter, and Josh Jacobs returned a blocked punt 27 yards later in the frame to post the team’s 14th non-offensive touchdown in 2016—tying Southern Miss in 2011 for the most in FBS dating back to 1996, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
“We’ve scored more non-offensive touchdowns this year than any team that I’ve ever been associated with,” head coach Nick Saban said. “It speaks to the playmaker-type guys that we have and the good job that the coaches do putting them in position. When you block a punt, it’s always a schematic thing based on their protection. The guys did a great job of executing it.”
The two scores masked a woeful offensive performance in which the Tide lost seven yards for the quarter but still managed to build a 16-9 lead going into the second. Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts was pressured out of the pocket on multiple occasions, missed wide-open throws and couldn’t get into rhythm against a Gator defense that offered one of the biggest tests of his short career.
Those scores provided an insurance policy. A bridge. A buffer until Alabama got rolling and added rushing and passing touchdowns en route to the massive blowout under the big top of the Georgia Dome.
“We needed it, because we were struggling offensively, especially in the first quarter,” Saban said. “Once we started to control the line of scrimmage and were able to run the ball, it takes a little pressure off of Jalen.”
The ability to score on defense and special teams serves as college football’s ultimate safeguard. In case of emergency, Saban can “break glass, pull down” and get through a game when things aren’t clicking.
Things didn’t click well Saturday.
The rushing attack disappeared at times. Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin signaled for touchdowns on two plays in which receivers were wide-open in the end zone, only to be overlooked by the true freshman Hurts. The offense was disjointed early for the SEC West champs.
That was all in a first half in which Hurts threw 16 passes, was sacked once and Kiffin’s offense ran just 11 rushing plays.
As Bud Elliott of SB Nation noted on Twitter, it was a curious game plan for a team that entered the day with the SEC’s second-best rushing attack (245.9 yards per contest).
What’s crazy is Florida—in this setting—provided a perfect chance for a passing experiment.
The stout Gator pass defense that Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson led, coupled with the ability of the Tide defense and special teams to not only make plays but impact the scoreboard, created a great opportunity for Alabama to use this as a testing ground—especially with a built-in margin for error that would likely allow the Tide to maintain a College Football Playoff spot even with a loss.
This team’s ability to take pressure off its unproven parts has been a constant theme that’s led to success.
Ohio State’s offensive line issues cost it a game at Penn State. Pitt quarterback Nathan Peterman and offensive coordinator Matt Canada worked the Clemson secondary in a home loss. Washington had no match for a hot USC team in Seattle in its lone blemish.
Whether it’s defensive end Jonathan Allen returning a fumble for a touchdown against Texas A&M and another for a score against Ole Miss in what were huge games at the time, safety Ronnie Harrison jumping a route on a Tennessee screen pass and going the distance or punt returner Eddie Jackson’s two scores prior to his season-ending leg injury, Alabama always had a backup plan during the 2016 regular season.
Because of that “ace in the hole,” the Tide have been imperfectly perfect.
The offensive game plan with Hurts taking the snaps had been simple as he eased into the starting role.
“He’s done an unbelievable job,” Kiffin said. “He’s done it…for a true freshman to finish the regular season No. 1 in the country…there’s a reason it hadn’t been done before because guys make a lot of mistakes now. He’s got a great surrounding cast offensively, and that’s helped him. He’s done a great job against some really good defenses.”
The offense is going to have plenty of evolving to do over the next month, as it prepares for a national semifinal date on Dec. 31—likely in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl in Atlanta, since the top seed gets to pick and it makes geographic sense.
Kiffin is reportedly interviewing for the vacant Houston head coaching job Sunday, according to ESPN’s Brett McMurphy, and is a target of new full-time LSU head coach Ed Orgeron for the coordinator role in Baton Rouge, per the Advocate‘s Ross Dellenger.
Will he stick around in Tuscaloosa during bowl preparation? That remains to be seen.
“We’ve had conversations about it,” Saban said. “He wants to be a head coach. I want him to be a head coach. I want to help him to get a head coaching job. The rest of it, we have not discussed, and I don’t think it’s the right time. Maybe the right time will be sometime in the next couple [of] weeks, but right now we’re focusing on him trying to get a head coaching job.”
No matter his role, giving Hurts—who wasn’t the starter until Game No. 2—more of the offense to work with leading up to the biggest game of his life is Alabama’s top priority over the next month.
It’s already solidified its spot as the best team in the country.
The goal now is to take an imperfect team to the perfect season in the College Football Playoff.
Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics courtesy of cfbstats unless otherwise noted.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report, as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.
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