ARLINGTON, Texas — There is rarely a single moment in a football game that so perfectly captures the difference between the two teams on the field, a snapshot image that so completely describes what one team is doing to an entire sport.
When Alabama running back Najee Harris ski-ramped off the turf at AT&T Stadium in the first quarter Friday, hurdling clear over the head of a Notre Dame cornerback on his way to another big gain, another quick score, another Alabama performance that made a hard game look laughably easy, there was only one conclusion to draw.
Nobody else in college football can fly this high.
By now, there is nothing unusual or surprising about another Alabama trip to the national championship game on Jan. 11 in South Florida. After the Crimson Tide’s 31-14 win over Notre Dame in the College Football Playoff semifinals, Alabama will be there for the eighth time in 14 years under Nick Saban.
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But what this version of Alabama is doing and how they’re doing it? Not normal; not normal at all.
It wasn’t enough for Nick Saban to lord over college football for more than a decade. He’s gone and hacked the sport, broken the matrix and reached nirvana with a team whose best may be the best there has ever been.
This Alabama does not physically impose itself on football games as much as it glides through them, daring opponents to reach a level they’ve never played at before, then sustain it for 60 minutes without making a mistake. Alabama, meanwhile, can take off at cruising altitude and stay there for as long as they want. The game becomes serene versus strain.
Alabama isn’t unbeatable. There can be lulls and lapses, opportunities to crack open the door. Notre Dame crept toward it for a few minutes on Friday early in the second half when it was a 21-7 game before the stress of trying to play perfect football for that long became too much. In the SEC championship, we saw Florida try to turn it into a tennis match where a punt was like a break of serve. That ultimately didn’t work, either.
We’ll find out in 10 days whether Clemson or Ohio State can sustain the kind of level it will take to actually beat Alabama, not just hang with them for a half or three quarters. But as talented as those teams are, they’re likely to run into the same problem: For Alabama, everything is just easier.
That’s the luxury of its offense, which has gears on top of dimensions that are impossible to account for. The sheer speed of DeVonta Smith, who was almost always open against Notre Dame and made catches even when he wasn’t, totaling seven for 130 yards and three touchdowns. The durability and physicality of Harris, who left fans gasping at the replay of his hurdle on the scoreboard here even an hour after it happened. The utter chill of quarterback Mac Jones, who seems impossible to make uncomfortable. And the scheme of coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who knows when it’s time to throttle up and go.
Notre Dame had the bravado to take the ball first in this semifinal game, hoping to get a jump on the Crimson Tide. Instead, it was 14-0 Alabama after two possessions, 12 offensive plays and 176 yards. At one point late in the first half, Alabama was averaging an otherworldly 14.4 yards per play, a number that eventually came down to a still absurd 7.95.
And it wasn’t even about Notre Dame playing poorly or not belonging in the Playoff as some critics will howl after a second semifinal blowout loss in the past three years. The Fighting Irish belonged and for the most part did what was necessary to limit the Alabama offense with an effective running game and some clock-consuming drives.
It didn’t matter because Alabama is utterly unmoved and unstressed by anything that it has faced this season. Like few other teams in the history of college football, the Crimson Tide has the luxury of knowing its options are endless and its best is untouchable.
With Saban embracing this offensive system and recruiting this depth of skill, the entire paradigm of the sport has been shaken up even as the bottom line seems so normal. Once again, Alabama has leapt over everyone.