Alabama clearly the team to beat
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- So who is college football's second-best team after Georgia upset turnover-plagued Florida 17-9 on Saturday?
Is it No. 3 Kansas State, which walloped No. 14 Texas Tech 55-24 to improve to 8-0?
Is it No. 4 Oregon, which scored eight touchdowns in the first half of a 70-14 rout of lowly Colorado?
Or is it No. 5 Notre Dame, which announced its return to national relevance once and for all with a 30-13 victory at No. 8 Oklahoma?
After watching No. 1 Alabama dismantle No. 11 Mississippi State 38-7 in front of a sellout crowd of 101,821 fans at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday night, I can offer you an educated guess.
The argument over No. 2 doesn't even matter.
None of the above mentioned teams is good enough on both offense and defense to beat the Crimson Tide, the defending BCS national champions.
This Alabama team, which improved to 8-0 going into next week's SEC West showdown at No. 6 LSU, might be as good as (or even better than) the 2011 squad that finished 12-1 and defeated the Tigers 21-0 in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game in New Orleans.
I'm not telling the BCS to hand a fourth crystal trophy to Alabama coach Nick Saban (he won his first at LSU in 2003 and then two more with the Tide in 2009 and 2011) sometime next week. But unless the Tide lose quarterback AJ McCarron to a season-ending injury or turn it over six times in a game like Florida did on Saturday, they're going to be one of the teams playing in the Jan. 7 Discover BCS National Championship Game in Miami.
And chances are it really won't matter which team plays the Tide, because it's probably not going to win.
Alabama is so good at what it does right now that its games have become rather mundane and anticlimactic. All week long, Mississippi State fans covered the South (and beyond) with the school-endorsed Twitter hash tag #WeBelieve, which was their way of convincing themselves that the undefeated Bulldogs actually had a chance to compete with the Crimson Tide.
Their hopes lasted all of about 12 minutes. Alabama took the game's opening kickoff and marched 59 yards for a touchdown. After blocking a Mississippi State field goal, the Tide scored again on McCarron's 57-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Bell for a 14-0 lead with 3:27 to go in the first quarter.
From there, Alabama's defense pinned its ears back and smothered the Bulldogs. It's gotten to the point where Alabama just sucks the life out of its opponents. Even when Mississippi State was in position to score, the Bulldogs were turned away. Along with the blocked field goal, an interception in the end zone by Alabama safety Robert Lester prevented another score.
"We certainly had a lot of respect for Mississippi State," Saban said. "You can't get to be 7-0 by accident. We thought they were a really good team. You prepare yourself to fight a 15-round fight and know you're going to have to take the fight to them in the early rounds. You know you can't win in the early rounds, but you can certainly lose it."
Alabama has been knocking out its opponents early and often during its national championship defense.
"We knew this was going to be a big game for us," Alabama center Barrett Jones said. "We knew they were going to come out and really believe they could win the game. We knew we'd have to start fast and kind of take their hope away."
Alabama's defense did just that, limiting the Bulldogs to only 47 rushing yards and knocking down quarterback Tyler Russell on nearly every play.
Even after losing star players like linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw and safety Mark Barron to the NFL draft, the Crimson Tide might be just as good on defense as they were a year ago. They rank No. 1 nationally in total defense, scoring defense, run defense and pass-efficiency defense. They suffocate opponents and frustrate them into making mistakes.
"For all the young players we have, if you'd told me we'd be in the position we are statistically and scoringwise, I'd say no way," Saban said. "But these guys wanted to prove something. I've been really proud of the progress they've made."
The biggest difference between this Alabama team and last year's is on offense. The team that couldn't score a touchdown in a 9-6 overtime loss to LSU at home last season is averaging 40.6 points this season. Alabama is as balanced as any team in the country on offense, averaging 214 rushing yards and 222 passing.
McCarron, who wasn't always sure of himself in his first season as a starter in 2011, now looks like a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate. He leads the country in pass efficiency and hasn't thrown an interception in 177 pass attempts. McCarron completed 16 of 23 passes for 208 yards with two touchdowns against Mississippi State before leaving the game with a bruised back in the second half.
The Tide even have big-play receivers like Amari Cooper and Bell, which they didn't have last season.
"It's not your mom's ball-control offense," Jones said. "We're very explosive. If you want to put a lot of guys in the box and cover us one-on-one, we've got some guys who can exploit it and a quarterback who can make the throws."
Are the Crimson Tide as exciting and fun to watch as Oregon's fast-paced offense? Probably not.
Have they gone on the road and won at a place like Oklahoma, as Notre Dame did on Saturday? Not yet.
But unless Alabama does something completely out of character -- like missing four field goals against LSU -- it's again the team to beat.