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Alabama backs up hype in SEC championship game for the ages

ATLANTA -- I want to believe Notre Dame can beat Alabama, but the problem is that I just saw Alabama. I saw a Southeastern Conference title game that felt an awful lot like an epic national championship game. I saw the Crimson Tide beat Georgia, 32-28, in one of the finest games of the last decade. I saw enough NFL talent on the field to stock the AFC West.

So, I want to believe in Notre Dame, but ... well, is Joe Montana still eligible? Notre Dame has so many bright students. Maybe a few of them can use the next month to frame the entire Alabama offensive line for securities fraud.

Did you see these guys against Georgia? Alabama ran for 350 yards on 51 carries, and "ran" is not the right word. This was a bulldozing. This was raw power, a muscle-on-muscle mashing of a Georgia defense that has three potential NFL first-round picks. And yeah, I know Notre Dame has a tougher run defense than Georgia, but I mean: 350 yards on 51 carries! How much tougher can Notre Dame's defense really be?

I want to believe the SEC is overrated. I don't want to hear all the talk about SEC speed, and all that talent on the defensive line, and how nobody can possibly understand how tough this league is, because the game means so much more in the South, where it's almost like a religion. But this was a 60-minute display of SEC dominance. This made the Pac-12 title game look like a high-school championship.

Sure, there were some ugly plays. Alabama's AJ McCarron and Georgia's Aaron Murray each threw horrible interceptions. 'Bama coach Nick Saban inexplicably kept two timeouts in his pocket at the end of the first half, costing his team a chance at a touchdown.

But mostly, this was college football being played at a higher level than anywhere else in the country.

Man, I hate myself for typing that.

This was a game that nobody really deserved to lose, and the lasting image, for me, was a man bent down on one knee on the field afterward. His name is Kenarious Gates. He is Georgia's left tackle. He is 6-foot-5, 318 pounds, and it was jarring to see a man that size huddled over ... sobbing uncontrollably. His face was in his hand. His chest was shaking. In a moment like that, you realize why college sports are still so compelling.

I asked Gates about it afterward. He was sitting at his locker, still in full uniform and pads, staring at a world of nothing. He gave me a simple explanation for his tears:

"It was like somebody stabbed me in the heart."

Gates had every reason to feel that way. Georgia easily could have won. In the final seconds, the Bulldogs had a first down at the Alabama eight-yard-line, and if Murray had just spiked the ball to stop the clock, he probably would have been able to take two shots at the end zone. But chaos and a time crunch can fluster anyone. Murray got a pass off, but it was batted and caught short of the end zone, ending the game.

It was a brutal loss for Georgia. But it was the right result for college football, and the wrong one for Notre Dame. Alabama is the best team in the SEC, which means Alabama is the best team in the country. The Crimson Tide proved it again Saturday evening.

If you look past the close score, the 21-10 Georgia lead, and the down-to-the-last-play finish, you can see that Alabama was better than Georgia. The Tide outgained the Bulldogs 512-394. Georgia blocked a field goal for a touchdown, executed a fake punt and got lucky when a delay-of-game penalty wiped out a successful Alabama fake punt. And mostly, whenever Alabama's offense needed to get three yards, it got six.

Alabama's offensive line goes 311, 320, 302, 303 and 335, and these aren't Krispy Kreme pounds, either. Left guard Chance Warmack will be an NFL starter. So will left tackle Cyrus Kouandijo. Again, in case you missed it: 350 yards on 51 carries.

Surely, this has to be the best game that offensive line has ever played.

"Uh, no," Kouandijo said. "Honestly, it wasn't. We had a lot of good numbers, but honestly, we left a lot of offense out on that field. We have a lot to work on, still."

Oh, I don't want to believe that. I'm sick of the SEC. I don't like when the same teams win all the time. It's boring. I'm sick of Alabama, which is going for its third title in four years, the way I got sick of USC a while back.

I want to believe that Notre Dame will beat Alabama with the same defense-and-discipline approach that has fueled some of the greatest upsets in college football history. I want to believe this is like Penn State shocking Miami in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, or Ohio State shocking Miami in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl.

But I just watched Alabama. And then I talked to Alabama players, and besides being so maddeningly nice and aggravatingly polite, they sound so much like Saban that it's frightening.

Star running back Eddie Lacy, who ran for 176 yards and may test positive for steel, said he didn't pay attention to any Georgia pregame trash talk, because "that's an external factor." Left tackle D.J. Fluker said the Tide's success is "about preparation. We're prepared for anything." And Warmack said he never worried about the score because "you don't want to deviate from the program. Whatever you do during the week is how you do in the game."

This is what the best coaches do. They don't just call plays. They create a belief system and get players to subscribe to it.

And that's another problem for Notre Dame. I just can't imagine this Alabama team getting cocky and assuming it will beat the Fighting Irish. And if Notre Dame does jump to a lead, the Tide won't panic. There is no fear in this group. Alabama is the best team in the country. It is almost an honor when a team this good stabs you in the heart.

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