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Alabama Finds New Way To Win

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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This wasn’t the smothering, death-by-a-thousand-paper-cuts performance that we usually see from Alabama.

Alabama finally cracked. The load of linebacker injuries caught up with the mighty Crimson Tide, and a powerful Mississippi State offense and a hostile atmosphere on an upside-down day in college football was simply going to be too much for them to overcome.

That would’ve been the lede to this story if Jalen Hurts and Calvin Ridley were anything but great on Saturday night in Starkville, but they were. Hurts and Ridley connected just five times, but they totaled 171 yards and set up three of Alabama’s four touchdowns. 63 and 61-yard strikes helped Alabama answer each of Mississippi State’s two first-half touchdowns, as the Tide went 75 yards in five plays on consecutive drives.

The big one came with less than a minute remaining and the score even at 24-24, as Ridley ran a drag route on a 3rd-and-15 into the middle of the field vacated by blitzing linebackers. Hurts hit him in stride, and Ridley turned it into a 31-yard completion. Hurts found DeVonta Smith on the next play for a touchdown, and the second-ranked Crimson Tide claimed a 31-24 victory over the Bulldogs.

This wasn’t the smothering, death-by-a-thousand-paper-cuts performance that we usually see from Alabama. The line of scrimmage is a weekly battle for the Crimson Tide right now. They still win more of them than they lose, but the physical dominance of recent Alabama teams is lacking with four linebackers lost to injuries and the lack of a dominant lineman like Jonathan Allen or A’Shawn Robinson.

Alabama won with offense, which it hasn’t had to do since the national championship game loss to Clemson 10 months ago, in which Hurts had previously led a go-ahead touchdown drive in the final minutes. That time, Alabama gave the Tigers time to respond. On Saturday night, all Mississippi State had were two Hail Mary attempts, neither of which came close to connecting.

Hurts usually has the help of a great defense and a dominant running game. He had neither on Saturday night, as the Bulldogs held the ball for 39 minutes behind 172 rushing yards. Alabama did crack 200 yards on the ground, but the scoring drives came via the air, save the game-tying drive in the fourth quarter in which Hurts converted a 4th-and-4 himself with a 13-yard scamper.

His final stat line: 10-of-19, 242 yards, 1 TD; 40 rushing yards, 1 TD. Those aren’t Heisman-winning numbers, but the timing of the big plays – most coming after Mississippi State scores – showed the special nature of Hurts and Ridley.

Even at 10-0 and almost certain to be back at No. 1 when the new College Football Playoff rankings are revealed in Tuesday, Alabama is far from the obvious pick to win the national title. It’s going to have four competitive games following next week’s layup against Mercer in order to win the national championship. There won’t be the cakewalks of 2016 past Auburn, Florida and Washington before the near-miss against Clemson.

The trip to Auburn in two weeks is going to be a war with the SEC West title on the line. With a win, Georgia – one of the few teams who can come close to matching Alabama athletically –would come next in the SEC Championship Game. Survive those two games, and Alabama will enter the most wide-open College Football Playoff since its inception in 2014.

Alabama teams generally aren’t carried by its quarterback and top receiver, but this team has to win in a different way to past ones. Coming into Saturday night, there was doubt about whether that was possible. Not anymore.

The topsy-turvy nature of college football was too much for No. 1 Georgia and No. 3 Notre Dame on Saturday. It wasn’t for Alabama, as the sport’s greatest program found a way to win that has been rare in Tuscaloosa.

For the time being, consider those cracks sealed.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.