TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Remember when the first College Football Playoff rankings debuted Tuesday and most of us—including me—wailed about Alabama’s placement at No. 4? What was the selection committee thinking?
It turns out committee members might have ranked the Crimson Tide a little low.
We complained during the week that Alabama was ranked too high based on its résumé to that point. We’ll shut up now. On Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium, the Tide offered a resounding rebuttal to all those complaints. LSU came in undefeated and ranked No. 2 and left completely whipped. A wild Arkansas win at Ole Miss had opened the door for Alabama to retake control of its SEC destiny, and the Tide stormed through behind Derrick Henry, who completely outshined that other SEC West tailback in a 30–16 demolition of the Tigers that wasn’t as close as the score.
Alabama also demolished the assumption that LSU’s Leonard Fournette would run away with the Heisman Trophy. The sophomore from New Orleans came to Tuscaloosa averaging 193.1 rushing yards per game, but he couldn’t run through an Alabama front seven that had been stingy all season before allowing 5.1 yards per carry to Tennessee’s Jalen Hurd in its previous outing. It turns out Hurd and the Volunteers had taken advantage of a Tide defense worn down by a stretch that also included games against Georgia, Arkansas and Texas A&M. Refreshed after a week off, the Tide front filled every gap and left Fournette nowhere to go. He carried 18 times for 31 yards. His longest carry was four yards before he finally broke off an 18-yarder early in the fourth quarter. “Nobody can run the ball on us,” Alabama linebacker Dillon Lee said. “It doesn’t matter who it is.”
Alabama coach Nick Saban knew the first time LSU ran its favorite zone play—a two-yard gain for Fournette on the Tigers’ first play from scrimmage—that his defense had a chance to contain Fournette. If you want to hear Saban get as excited as Bret Bielema was earlier Saturday, just listen to him to describe what his front seven did on that play. “The nose flatheads the center. The five technique knocks the guy back. The linebacker fills,” Saban said. “That’s their bread and butter. To be able to control that with our front seven was really, really good.”
Meanwhile, Alabama’s Henry made a strong case for his own inclusion in the Heisman race. Henry entered Saturday averaging 130.5 rushing yards per game and 5.8 yards per carry. “Derrick did the same thing he’s been doing. For some reason, he just doesn’t get as much credit as the other guy,” Alabama quarterback Jake Coker said. “The other guy is really good, too. I’m not taking a shot at him at all. He’s a great player, but so is that guy right there.” With that, Coker nodded toward Henry. Later, someone asked Coker if Henry is the nation’s best back. “You’re damn right he is,” Coker said.
LSU briefly attempted to participate in Saturday’s game. After falling behind 10–0 in the second quarter, the Tigers got on the board with a 40-yard pass from Brandon Harris to Travin Dural and tied the score with a 39-yard Trent Domingue field goal.
But Alabama’s Adam Griffith hit a 55-yard field goal just before halftime, and Harris threw his first interception of the season on the first play of the second half. Lee recognized a formation and a protection scheme he’d seen in the first half, so he decided to slip under the route. His instincts proved correct, and three plays later, the Tide offense turned that pick into a Henry touchdown. LSU never stood a chance after that.
The Tide never lost focus Saturday. In fact, Alabama’s most impressive offensive possession may have been its last. That drive resulted in zero points, but the Tide enforced their will so thoroughly that it left no doubt as to who will be the favorite in the SEC going forward. Alabama got the ball on its own four-yard line with 9:18 remaining. The Tide ran 13 plays—11 of them on the ground—and chewed up 78 yards and the remainder of the clock. Henry carried 11 times for 82 yards on the drive. (Why did Henry gain more yards than the team did on the drive? He helped Alabama overcome a holding penalty, and the Tide lost another two yards when Coker took a knee from the victory formation.) “That was huge,” Alabama center Ryan Kelly said. “It capped off the game the right way.”
Now, the committee can put Alabama just about wherever it wants. The Tide probably won’t jump Clemson and move to No. 1, but everything below that is in play. This may be the same roster that turned the ball over five times in a loss to Ole Miss on Sept. 19, but it looked like a different team Saturday. Perhaps the 2015 Ole Miss game will be for Alabama what the 2014 Virginia Tech game was for Ohio State. Or maybe Alabama will fall to Mississippi State or Auburn.
How this season ends will depend on how Alabama players deal with what Saban calls “clutter.” They handled it masterfully in the week leading up to the visit from LSU. The discussion of the Tide’s ranking and the hype surrounding the game might have affected them earlier this season, but it didn’t bother them Saturday. Even a critically important piece of information that had nothing to do with the task at hand went unnoticed by most of the players until after the task was completed. Tide linebacker Reggie Ragland, who had spent the week nodding politely as friends and family discussed pregame hype and rankings chatter that had nothing to do with getting the defensive linemen lined up correctly, managed to ignore the clutter deep into Saturday night.
About a half hour after the final whistle, Ragland still didn’t know Arkansas had pulled out a wild win at Ole Miss minutes before Alabama and LSU took the field. That result was critical to Alabama because of the Rebels’ win in Tuscaloosa. As long as Ole Miss had only one SEC loss, the Rebels controlled their SEC destiny. As soon as the Rebels incurred SEC loss No. 2, control of the West shifted to the winner of Saturday’s clash in Tuscaloosa. This was a big deal for the Tide, but it couldn’t help them beat LSU. So Ragland didn’t care about it. When he finally learned the result, he allowed himself just the tiniest moment of joy before flipping some unseen switch that returned him to his one-game-at-a-time programming.
“So we hold our own destiny,” Ragland said, laughing. Then he turned stone-faced again. “That still really don’t mean nothing. We’ve got to keep playing ball,” he said. “We’ve still got two games left in the West to finish off. We’ve still got to do our job. We’ve got a great opponent in Dak Prescott and [Mississippi State] next week.”