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BRAD ROCK : Alabama can thank Utah

From my seat in the press box, Alabama fans  appeared unconcerned when Utah scored the first touchdown of the 2009 Sugar Bowl. They were relaxed, happy, maybe a bit patronizing. 

Good for Utah. It’s nice the Utes could get on the scoreboard. 

Crimson Tide fans didn’t seem to sense anything unusual coming. Neither did I. 

Two minutes later, Utah scored again. When that happened, Bama fans seemed a bit perturbed, though still unworried. It was something the Crimson Tide could iron out. 

But faster than you could say “The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” Alabama’s world tilted. So did Utah’s, though in a different direction. The Crimson Tide was trailing 21-0 in the first quarter and down for the count. 

If that game hadn’t happened, Utah might not have been invited to the Pac-12, 17 months later. 

And Alabama might not have been the perennial championship contender it is today. 

That game a dozen years ago was both an awakening for Utah and a wake-up for the Tide.

On Monday, Ohio State and Alabama meet in the national championship game. It wouldn’t be a huge upset if the Buckeyes won. OSU is a kingly program. It made Clemson look downright helpless last week in the semifinals. Still, Alabama emerged an early 6- or 7-point favorite to win its 18th championship. 

I’d be picking Alabama, favored or not.

Because of Utah.  That was the last time the Tide truly got shocked by anyone.

Since then, coach Nick Saban has adhered to race car legend Ricky Bobby’s credo: “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”

Alabama is unlikely to finish last this time. It obliterated the competition this year. It beat Texas A&M by 28, Auburn by 29, LSU by 38, Arkansas by 49 and Georgia and Notre Dame by 17. 

Saban can thank Utah for that.

The Utes taught the Tide to roll, regardless of the opponent.

Usually Alabama plays a handful of lightweights to balance the ridiculously good conference slate. But this season’s pandemic derailed the chance to annihilate Georgia State, Kent State and UT-Martin. 

The 2020 Tide rolled anyway, going undefeated.. 

That didn’t happen in 2008. Ranked No. 1 for five weeks during the regular season, Alabama’s title hopes died in a loss to Florida in the SEC championship game. Bama was barely interested when the Sugar Bowl rolled around. 

Since losing to Utah, Alabama has made it a point not to get surprised. Although a few underdogs have defeated the Tide in recent years, none broke protocol the way the 2008 Utes did. Bama lost to South Carolina in 2010, but the Gamecocks went on to play in the SEC championship game. In 2011, the Tide’s only loss was to LSU, which later played in the national championship game against, yes, Alabama. 

Second time around, it was a 21-0 Tide rout.

In 2012, Bama lost to eventual Cotton Bowl winner Texas A&M, which finished 11-2. The 2013 Tide lost to Auburn — a team that eventually played in the national championship — and to 11-2 Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. 

Something got into Ole Miss in 2014 and 2015, but those years were historic seasons for the Rebels. Moreover, a loss to an SEC opponent is never a true upset — unless it’s Vanderbilt. The last time that happened was in 1984. 

Bama’s only loss in 2016 was in the national championship game, to Clemson. In 2017 and 2019 the Tide lost to Auburn because the Tigers were exceptional and, well, because it was Auburn. 

No outcome is an upset in the Iron Bowl.

The 2018 Tide lost one time — to Clemson in the national championship. 

Nobody has shaken Alabama’s world the way Utah did.

So pay no attention to anyone predicting an Ohio State win. The Buckeyes aren’t going to catch the Crimson Tide sleeping. Alabama never sleeps. 

As Ricky Bobby said, “I’m just a big hairy American winning machine, you know?”

For that, Alabama can credit the Utes.

PHOTO: University of Utah

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