TUSCALOOSA, ALA. — We have awakened this week to an entire universe in upheaval.
For there is water on Mars and worry in Tuscaloosa.
Leaving the subject of Martian koi ponds to better minds, focus for a moment on the shocking developments closer to home. Here it is, October only beginning, and Alabama football already has its first loss, the earliest in a season the Crimson Tide’s record has been besmirched in the eight-year reign of Nick Saban.
Just four games into the season, and it is nowhere to be found in top 10 of college football rankings — the Tide’s currently at No. 13. That hasn’t been the case since 2008.
There already has been cause for one of those break-glass-in-case-of-emergency measures — the players-only meeting.
And, do you realize it has been nearly three whole years since Alabama’s won a national title? That is the equivalent of 30 in Bulldog years.
“When you’re on top of the world everyone’s praising your name. And then when you lose one game it kind of goes down the hill,” said center Ryan Kelly in a tone of resignation.
If all this makes Georgia Bulldogs fans slightly uneasy in advance of Saturday’s meeting with ‘Bama, perhaps it should. This is a wounded elephant making its way to Sanford Stadium, and we city folk are always being told that is the most dangerous kind of wildlife.
Understand that not all losses are created equal. For a lot of teams, being 3-1 would be a landmark. For Alabama, it is more like a broken nose on Miss America.
Leave it to the erudite former Alabama coach who more recently launched the Georgia State program to lend insight to the public reaction hereabouts.
As Bill Curry recently told Al.com: “All of those people making that noise, not a single one of them will be in the huddle. Not one of them is going to run out on the field, and not one of them would be able to if you gave them an AK-47.
“The (players) know the people don’t know what they’re talking about and know they are panic-stricken because they’ve assigned some religious significance to every Saturday.”
That is the question that will have actual bearing on Saturday’s outcome: How will those with influence, those in the crimson helmets, react?
They know they have lost before and lived to tell about it. Just a year ago, they fell to the same team that beat them two weeks ago, Ole Miss, and recovered to appear in the college playoffs. Only one of their three national titles under Saban has been perfect.
“We’ve always had a great attitude,” the senior Kelly said. “In the past we’ve had one-loss seasons where we’ve won national championships so it’s not the end of the world. Sometimes when you lose you come back to focus on what we need to do to get better, reevaluate where you are. And I think we’ve done a good job of that moving forward.”
This last loss to Ole Miss, however, seemed to air an uncomfortable number of flaws. Be they Alabama’s five turnovers, its sloppy play in the secondary or its uncertainty at quarterback.
Screeched a headline on one national website: “Why Alabama’s loss to Ole Miss could be the Beginning of the End of the Tide Dynasty.”
For his part, Saban was withholding judgment at least until the returns from Athens are in.
“How you respond to a loss says a lot about your character,” he said. “I like the way our team responded in the last game (a 34-0 win over Louisiana-Monroe). This will be a much bigger challenge for them, playing on the road and playing one of the better teams in the country — if not one of the best. It will tell us a lot about our team and how we respond.”
“I’ve been pleased with the way they’ve practiced, the way they’ve tried to prepare, the things they learned from the loss,”
Saban said. “And I think we’ve gotten better.”
For the players part, they got together last week for a little pow-wow, in which they promised to shut out all the outside noise, recommit to each other, take it one game at a time and all those other bromides that grow in the moist confines of a locker room.
File it away. If Alabama does run the table from here, that players-only meeting will be referenced as a turning point. If not, well, it will be forgotten like all the other players-only meetings we never hear about.
Certainly, Georgia is going to have to contend with a team in a dangerous frame of mind. The Tide has had more than its record dented. Its very pride and sense of place in the football universe has been challenged.
As cornerback Cyrus Jones put it, “I think we take pride in the reputation that we’ve built around here and the standard we hold ourselves to every time we come out there and play.
“The fact that we’re underdogs (by 2 ½ points) gives us that much more motivation to go out there and reclaim our reputation and how we want to be viewed by the rest of the league and the rest of the country.”