At around 2:00 this morning, I was most of the way home from Athens, physically exhausted and emotionally spent, when my progress was halted by the passage of what seemed at the time to be the longest train ever to have crossed my path.
Mine was the second vehicle in line behind the lowered arm and flashing lights of the railroad crossing; before me was a white pickup truck with county government plates, and in the back of the truck was a cage containing a dog. It was dark, so I couldn’t tell for sure, but the dog looked to be either a German shepherd or a Siberian husky or an Alaskan malamute.
The dog sat there in the cage, looking straight back at me, panting, not exactly menacing but not altogether benign, and I looked at him as he looked at me and the screeching of the interminable passing train howled ominously in the night, sounding eerily like something out of an Angelo Badalamenti score. On top of all that, I was a guy named Kyle dressed entirely in black, so the moment was positively Lynchian. The first half was a lot like that.
It started out to be a great day, of course. Top-ranked Southern California had lost on Thursday night, RedCrake’s sign was visible on what I sincerely hope is the last installment of "College GameDay" ever broadcast from the Classic City, Ole Miss upended the Gators in Gainesville, and I got to tailgate with Doug Gillett, DAve Akins, and Scott and Meimi Hartman of Bloggerpalooza ‘08 fame at Tent City.
The first two quarters of the game itself, however, were nothing short of nightmarish. Naturally, this reality lends itself to a great deal of criticism. Certainly, there were officiating calls with which to quarrel and play calls with which to argue (although the approach of attacking the perimeter was mostly sound until necessity forced the ‘Dawgs to get away from their game plan); undoubtedly, you could question some of Matthew Stafford’s decisionmaking in the midst of a rapidly collapsing pocket or curse the random bounces of the ball.
The bottom line, though, is this: Alabama’s two greatest advantages coming into this game were along the lines, where the absences of Trinton Sturdivant and Jeff Owens definitely were felt. The Crimson Tide got pressure with their defensive linemen, their offensive line got enough of a push to ensure that the visitors’ first-down run was going to pick up three or four yards seemingly on every snap, and that was the ballgame.
As intermission neared, I found myself having flashbacks to the 1998 Tennessee game and the 1999 Auburn game, at the former of which "GameDay" came to town to witness what was supposed to be the anointing of the Bulldogs as a national championship contender and instead became the vaulting of Georgia’s opponent into national title consideration. (In my book, twice is a trend; the show never needs to be allowed back in Athens, period.)
I did not, however, have flashbacks to the losses to the Volunteers in 2004 or 2007. There was never a lack of intensity to the Red and Black effort last night. What went wrong between the hedges simply was a matter of fundamentals. Motivation doesn’t matter much if you can’t block your man.
The only silver lining for the men in silver britches was the heart and character shown in the second half by the players, the coaches, and---yes, I will give those of us who stayed until the bitter end a pat on the back---the fans. Down 31-0, Georgia made a game of it. Although it always seemed to me that the ‘Dawgs were merely going to make the margin respectable, the ‘Bama fans in my section were, at times, genuinely concerned that the home team was going to pull out a win . . . and, indeed, the situation was not truly hopeless until the last onside kick attempt fell just short of working.
By making stops, sustaining drives, and eliminating penalties, the Bulldogs turned what had been a blowout into what at least looked like a shootout, even if it really wasn’t. That, at least, is something upon which to build.
This, too, is something to which to cling while weathering the storm: Oregon State provided the template for the rest of the Pac-10 teams who have designs on beating U.S.C. Alabama did not provide the template for the rest of the S.E.C. teams who have designs on beating Georgia.
Who, other than L.S.U., has a defensive line comparable to the Crimson Tide’s? Which team anywhere in the Southeastern Conference fields an offensive front wall superior to Alabama’s? The Eastern Division still probably will be decided in Jacksonville, the national championship game still probably will feature at least one team with a loss, and a rematch with the Tide in the Georgia Dome is the goal.
At the end of the game, the Alabama fans on hand in Sanford Stadium launched into the "Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer" cheer, which contains the line: "We just beat the Hell out of you!" Those participating in this chant knew that what they were saying was untrue. More precisely, it was a half-truth . . . the first half.
Football, however, is a 60-minute game, not a 30-minute one, and therein lies the difference between my being a dejected Georgia fan and a hopeful one. For a while there, the Bulldogs were getting the Hell beaten out of them, but, in the end, all they got was beaten. The Red and Black lost what wound up being a darned fine football game, and (unlike Florida, Southern California, and Wisconsin) they lost it to a darned fine football team.
Actually, even that does not sound quite the right note. Bear Bryant said it best on New Year’s Eve 1973, after his Alabama squad lost the Sugar Bowl to Notre Dame: we didn’t lose; we just ran out of time.