This column seeks to look back on memorable moments in college football and offer commentary on what makes them unique.
Last weekend was the anniversary of Nick Saban’s coronation as king of the Southeastern Conference (SEC) West, the 2008 blackout game contested between his Alabama Crimson Tide and the Georgia Bulldogs. Alabama came into the game as the underdog, challenging Georgia’s top dawgs that had been ranked number one in both the Coach’s and AP preseason polls. That Bulldogs team featured two Heisman contenders: Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno, future All-Pro, Geno Atkins, lining up as a defensive tackle and the player who would go on to win SEC Freshman of the Year in A.J. Green. They were not to be taken lightly. Neither was Nick Saban.
Nick Saban came in with high expectations and for good reason. He was expected to be the next Bear Bryant and make ‘Bama the national powerhouse that it had failed to be since the legendary coach’s retirement. Six coaches had come and gone, failing to win more than one national championship among them. Bear Bryant had won six.
Nick Saban already had one Natty under his belt prior to his arrival in Tuscaloosa, which he had won in 2003 with Louisiana State University (LSU). Prior to that, he had won the Mid-American Conference in his first year as head coach at Toledo. He would leave Toledo to join Bill Belichick’s staff in Cleveland to become the Browns’s defensive coordinator. While he was there, he and Belichick invented an entirely new kind of zone coverage called a match zone, which hybridized zone coverage with man coverage in a way that could keep the middle of the field stacked against the run.
So, it was not as though Alabama had given a four million dollar contract to some sort of nobody they pulled off the street. Nick Saban knew what he was doing. Despite this, ‘Bama were only ranked as 24. Their performance in 2007 had been mediocre, finishing just over .500 thanks to a win in their bowl game. They were not expected to win their division, having to contend with more highly rated Auburn and LSU teams in the SEC West. This was even after considering Alabama’s number one recruiting class coming into the season, featuring future National Football League All-Decade wide receiver Julio Jones, future Heisman Award winner Mark Ingram Jr. and the massive junior college transfer, Terrence Cody, listed at six feet five inches and 365 pounds.
Alabama had every right to scoff at their preseason ranking, as, despite having lost nearly half of their games in the previous season, they had not been blown out — never losing by more than one touchdown. It was a team on the brink of something big, and they proved that by introducing themselves to the world with a convincing win over number seven Clemson in the Georgia Dome to kick off the season.
By the time of their week five matchup, the Tide had risen to eighth place, while the Dawgs had declined from their preseason peak of the first spot to third. However, Georgia were still optimistic heading into the game, donning black jerseys for the occasion that head coach Mark Richt would give them swagger. Alabama’s strength and conditioning coach, on the other hand, saw the black uniforms as appropriate for the “’explative’in’ funeral” that awaited the Dawgs come Saturday.
Boy, howdy, was he right. Jim McElwain employed Saban’s preferred pro-style run-first offense to devastating effect in the first half. The first thing that jumped out at me about the Tide’s offense when watching the game was how they rotated their running backs throughout the game. Each of the three featured backs had a touchdown by the time the game was over. Glen Coffee served as the primary power back, whereas Roy Upchurch was primarily used on passing downs, with Ingram serving as a rotation option for when Coffee was tired.
Through the strength of their offensive line and play-calling, Alabama managed to overcome a stout Georgia defensive line featuring future All-Pro Geno Smith. Senior quarterback John Parker Wilson, despite going on to finish the season as Alabama’s all-time career passing yards leader, was considered a weak link; they hid his deficiencies well, though, finishing the game with only 16 passing attempts. Over one third of his completions went to freshman phenom Julio Jones, who ended up finishing the game with 94 yards and a touchdown on five receptions. The Crimson Tide’s offense scored on their first five possessions, running away to a 31-0 lead going into the second half, and Georgia was at a loss for an answer.
It is hard to come up with an answer when a 365-pound man is charging at you every time the ball is snapped. Terrence Cody devastated an inexperienced Georgia offensive line. He was finding his way into the backfield on almost every snap, which meant, on passing plays, Stafford was forced to throw before the play had finished developing.
On the few rushing plays up the gut that the massive point differential afforded, Knowshon Moreno struggled valiantly to make gains. Stafford, who came into the game with a lengthy streak of over 100 completions without throwing an interception, was frequently throwing into double coverage due to the convergence of a nasty pass rush and lights-out coverage on the part of the secondary. Georgia’s offense was completely blacked out for the first half, only dazedly stumbling as if by the dumbest of luck into Alabama’s half of the field twice before half time.
Although Georgia would go on to put up a fight in the second half, forcing three straight three-and-outs from the ‘Bama offense and getting back to within three scores at the beginning of the fourth quarter, these were merely hopeful spots in a squash match of epic proportions. The Dawgs would claw themselves back to a somewhat respectable 41-30 score line with two touchdowns in garbage time, but the damage was done, and a statement made.
The Tide would go on to be undefeated in the regular season, reaching high tide at the SEC Championship game, against the eventual Bowl Championship Series’ national champion, the Florida Gators, which they would lose and would lose that year’s Sugar Bowl against an undefeated Utah team that several publications named their national champion. However, the stage was set for Alabama to return to the top of the college football food chain that they had been prowling after since the retirement of apex predator Bear Bryant. At Alabama, Saban has won five national championships, leaving him one short of Bear Bryant’s mark, but he has achieved all that in 13 seasons whereas Bryant’s tenure lasted 24 years. Nick Saban has gotten the Tide rolling, and they have been showing no signs of stopping since that funeral 12 years ago.