Let’s talk about the picture below, and what it meant to college football when it appeared on our televisions.
The image of Tim Tebow, sobbing on national television because his team’s about to lose the 2009 SEC Championship game, sparked two different reactions from fans without a stake in the game. The first, and the one that followed Tebow into the NFL and Minor League Baseball, was all about the media/society/insert-group-you’re-mad-at-here attacking and disparaging a Good Young Man Of Faith. This is not the reaction I want to discuss, because it involves thinking about Facebook too much.
The second reaction is more suited to Twitter: the unbridled delight that an Urban Meyer/Tim Tebow Florida team, a team everyone outside of Gainesville was sick of, got itself stomped.
This is a strange thing to think about in 2020: A little over ten years ago, the viewing public was largely thankful to see Alabama win a big game as the underdog. They even made the kind of tacky shirts another team would make today for beating Alabama!
That is not the Twitter role the Crimson Tide occupied in 2019, the season when they didn’t ruin any more championship dreams, or poke a thumb in the eye of media dummies who declared their empire crumbled. Instead, Alabama Twitter has turned to a different insult, one that is well-worn online but fairly new for Bama: the Tide are living rent-free in the heads of their haters.
I suspect I will regret saying this, but they’re right!
Nick Saban has easily lapped what that Florida team accomplished; the Tide went on to claim the 2009 championship, then added four more between 2010 and 2019. (There are also the two championship games they played in and lost, and the championship game they potentially missed thanks to Auburn Auburning the hardest they’ve ever Auburned.) The team appeared in each of the first five College Football Playoff foursomes, where they either took the title or lost to the team who did.
For a decade now, Alabama has been the gravitational force at the center of college football. Grayshirting? That’s an Alabama story (even if it’s actually a story about a lot of schools). The Heisman? Mark Ingram won it in 2009, Derrick Henry won it in 2015, and Bama had four other finalists. Coaching hires? Seven Power 5 schools have picked a coach based, at least in part, on having worked in Tuscaloosa. UAB football’s strange and amazing death and rebirth? Yup, that’s sort of an Alabama story. SEC hatred? Sorry, that’s actually Bama hate, since they won four of the SEC’s five national titles over the last decade. #collegekickers? Alabama does that bigger and badder than your team, too.
From that first championship season in 2009 through 2019, the Crimson Tide played 12 Power 5 opponents in non-conference games. 12 chances for another conference to chop the off the head of King SEC. Alabama left all 12 contests without a scratch on their neck.
Bama’s also performed as a foil to multiple individual programs. They’re a major part of why Auburn gave Gus Malzahn a big extension in 2017. They served as the primary stumbling block between Georgia and three possible national titles in 2012, 2017, and 2018. They tarnished and eventually doomed Les Miles’s resume at LSU. In defeat, they served as the strongest possible marketing tool for Johnny Manziel’s Heisman campaign. They were the prize that made cheating, and the NCAA punishments that followed, ultimately worth it for Ole Miss.
Does this seem like overkill? Too bad, there’s more!
Even though they’re not in the 2019 National Championship, Alabama still forms a crucial part of the story. Clemson’s emergence as a college football superpower is punctuated by beating...Alabama. (Twice.) LSU proved they weren’t an early-season fad team once they beat...Alabama.
Consider all that and ask yourself: how could Bama not live in our heads? All our heads?
To have no reaction to the absence of college football’s pope/generalissimo/wizard king would be disrespectful, no matter what that reaction is. If the rest of us take glee in Alabama’s extremely rare and limited failures, it’s for a very basic and important reason: the Tide have a gravitational pull far beyond most teams.
Look at what it took to even knock Alabama out of the Playoff: Continued churn with the coordinators, multiple starters knocked out for the season, Joe Burrow having one of the best quarterback seasons in history, and Auburn doing even more Auburn stuff. That perfect storm of trouble still ended with Bama winning 10 games before pantsing Michigan in the Citrus Bowl.
The attention Bama draws when they stumble is a natural byproduct of their sustained dominance, and frankly it’s a good trade-off when you consider the alternative. Florida’s not in the College Football Playoff this year either. And nobody who roots for a Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, ACC, or Group of Five team noticed or cared enough to even make a cheap t-shirt about it.