One familiar foe left between Alabama football and history

Special to The Bama Buzz — legendary sportswriter Kevin Scarbinsky‘s take on the Alabama Crimson Tide’s victory over the Cincinnati Bearcats and the upcoming re-match between Nick Saban and Kirby Smart for the National Championship.

And so the most unpredictable college football season in memory will come down to a completely predictable finale: Alabama vs. Georgia, the next chapter in this crimson-colored series. It’ll be the GOAT Nick Saban vs. the kid Kirby Smart, the most uncertain Alabama playoff team under Saban against the best Georgia team since Herschel Walker was a freshman.

Come Monday Jan. 10th in Indianapolis, the last teams standing are going to look awfully familiar as the only two teams to occupy the No. 1 ranking all season. Current No. 1 Alabama and former top dog Georgia will meet for the second time in five weeks, for the second time in the National Championship Game in five seasons.

Alabama-Georgia Rematch

Alabama Football
Alabama winning the 2021 SEC Championship in Atlanta on December 4, 2021. Photo via Emily Kent for Bham Now

If this game looks anything like their last encounter in the SEC Championship Game, it will be painfully familiar for Smart and his Bulldogs. They left Atlanta on the first Saturday in December with their formerly unbeaten tail between their legs as Alabama rolled 41-24. The Dawgs got their bite back against Michigan 34-11 in Friday night’s one-sided Orange Bowl semifinal, but as Smart knows all too well, Michigan isn’t Alabama. Neither is Georgia, as his 0-4 record against his mentor has made perfectly clear.

Just the same, a funny thing happened on the way to a renewal of this family feud. Despite controlling Cincinnati 27-6 in Friday’s Cotton Bowl semifinal, Alabama didn’t get here by being Alabama. All season long, the defending champions, minus the most productive collection of skill players in school history, flirted dangerously with being ordinary.

Before completely flopping, Florida had them on their heels.

En route to Ed Orgeron’s unceremonious exit, LSU had them in its sights.

Mired in mediocrity, Auburn had them on the ropes.

Yet only Texas A&M was able to take down the Tide, which means Jimbo Fisher is 60 minutes shy of becoming another answer to a trivia question. He’s in line to join Ron Zook (2003 Florida), Les Miles (2011 LSU), Kevin Sumlin (2012 Texas A&M), Hugh Freeze (2015 Ole Miss) and Gus Malzahn (2017 Auburn) as coaches who beat Saban but didn’t keep him from winning a national title that same season.

A Vintage Performance Against Cincinnati

At age 70, Saban’s evolution has reached the point where his bag of tricks is more resourceful than Alabama’s all-too-busy sideline medical tent. Through a suboptimal combination of injury and NFL matriculation, this was not a vintage Alabama team until a vintage Alabama performance was required against Cincinnati. When it was time to put away the fireworks and finesse and bring back the brute strength and sheer will of joyless murderball circa 2009-12, Alabama went full anaconda, squeezing the hope out of the country’s last unbeaten team.

Alabama Football
Alabama Crimson Tide vs. Cincinnati Bearcats right before the kickoff at the 2021 Cotton Bowl. Photo via Joy Philpott on Facebook

On a day when quarterback Bryce Young played one of the lesser games of his Heisman-winning season, completing fewer passes for fewer yards than he had all year, he still became Alabama’s single-season leader in passing yards and touchdown passes. But Young’s best wasn’t necessary because Saban’s worst rushing team at Alabama took advantage of Cincinnati’s three-man front to run for a season-high 301 yards, thanks primarily to a career-high 204 yards from fifth-year senior and hometown hero Brian Robinson.

No one had ever mistaken the hard-charging Tuscaloosa native for Najee Harris or Derrick Henry until Robinson ran for more yards in a bowl game than any Crimson Tide ball carrier before him to earn the game’s offensive MVP award. Alabama set the smash-mouth tone on the opening possession, with 10 straight rushing attempts preceding a short TD toss from Young to Slade Bolden.

“I literally put all my heart into this, this university, that team in that locker room,” Robinson said. “I don’t ever want to let my brothers down. I don’t ever want to let my coaches down. I don’t ever want to let this university down.”

Mission accomplished, and Alabama’s defensive front seven was as imposing as Robinson and the offensive line. When Phidarian Mathis, defensive MVP Will Anderson and friends weren’t batting down passes, they chewed up Cincinnati’s blockers as if the dazed Bearcats were glazed bear claws. Cincinnati failed to score a touchdown for the first time in two years.

Bearcats Belonged

Despite its status as the first Group of Five team to reach the playoff, Cincinnati proved it belonged alongside Alabama’s five previous semifinal victims. Michigan State 2015, Washington 2016, Clemson 2017, Oklahoma 2018 and Notre Dame 2020 also lost to the Crimson Tide by double-figure margins ranging from 11 to 38 points.

And so Alabama’s quest for a second straight national championship and Saban’s search for an eighth big ring, his seventh with the Crimson Tide, comes down to this: Do what you’ve already done. Beat who you’ve already beaten. Prove what you’ve already proven.

You don’t have to start fast to finish strong. Georgia has led Alabama in each of the four Saban-Smart matchups, building double-digit leads in three of those games, including a 10-0 edge in December.

There’s more than one way to skin a Bearcat or tame a Bulldog. Young secured the Heisman in the SEC Championship Game. Robinson earned his place in Alabama history in the Cotton Bowl.

Put it all together, and what makes this Alabama team different is what makes it special. It’s not the best Saban team in recent memory, but it’s earned an opportunity to leave its own legacy as the best team in the country.

Pat Byington
Pat Byington
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