I’m not kidding. I believe Alabama would have lost to Georgia on Monday night if the Tide hadn’t played the Vanderbilt Commodores in Nashville in the fourth week of the season.
With quarterback Jalen Hurts at the helm, Alabama was steam-rolling opponents. But Vanderbilt had just beaten Kansas State for its first win over a ranked non-conference opponent since the Truman administration.
But no one told them to act like they’ve been there before. So after the Kansas State game, Commodore nose guard Nifae Lealao said these words to a reporter: “Bama, you’re next!”
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If you play college football, you should never say those words to anybody. They will appear on social media, and the Crimson Tide players will see them and get mad, and Nick Saban will get asked about it during a press conference, and he will get mad.
Then the players will practice harder than ever, and Saban will stick to the process even more closely than ever, and then when the game comes your team will get killed.
You will get killed in the first quarter, but because you said, “Bama, you’re next” – or even worse, “We want Bama” – the team will keep playing hard and you will get killed in the second quarter.
That’s what happened in Nashville. Then early in the third quarter, with Alabama winning 38-0, Saban put in the second team. The quarterback was Tua Tagovailoa, who like Lealao hails from Hawaii. He was also the top quarterback prospect in the nation and a considerably better passer than Hurts.
This is when Saban usually runs the ball and runs out the clock, keeping the score respectable and graciously declining to humiliate his opponent.
But I believe because Lealao had said those words that no one should ever say, Saban let Tua run around and air out the ball. He was electrifying. He threw 10 passes, completing eight for 103 yards and two touchdowns, and Bama won 59-0.
Then he waited for Monday night.
As you know, Georgia was winning 13-0 at halftime. My daughter recently graduated from UGA and my son is a sophomore there, so I was happy for both of them.
Bess and I raised both of them to be Vanderbilt fans, which means they know there’s more to life than winning.
They know that losing builds character, and that if you lose by 35 points but you keep working hard and don’t quit, then one day you might lose by a field goal.
They listened – and wore their black and gold – and learned.
But when they graduated from high school, each chose UGA, and this year’s run to the national championship game was thrilling for them.
At halftime on Monday night, I could sense a Bulldog victory. But I had seen Tua work his magic in Nashville. I decided that if Hurts played the second half, the game was over.
But if Tua Tagovailoa came into the game and started scrambling and throwing like he did against Vanderbilt when Lealao said what he said and Nick Saban decided to blow the Commodores out of their stadium, then we’d have ourselves a ballgame.
And that’s exactly what happened.
I haven’t shared this theory with my children. It would be no consolation to them, of course. I taught them how to lose all the time, not how to lose the final game of the playoffs.
“Being a Vanderbilt fan has prepared me for a lot,” my daughter texted me after the game, “but not for this.”