Alabama has been dominant, but has Nick Saban’s team been tested?

Alabama has been dominant, but has Nick Saban's team been tested?

As the championships have piled up for Nick Saban, it remains a bit of an anomaly that he’s only coached one undefeated team. His first championship team at Alabama in 2009 went 14-0, but the other four (including 2003 at LSU) all had a loss that ultimately proved purposeful.

Alabama celebrates with its trophy after winning the SEC title game.

In 2011, Alabama’s frustrating 9-6 overtime loss to LSU helped provide a blueprint for the title game rematch, which the Crimson Tide won in a 21-0 throttling.

In 2012, losing to Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel in November could have been costly, but in the big picture it helped paved the way for Saban to evolve his offensive philosophy, which is clearly paying dividends now.

Then last season, in a sloppy 43-37 early-season loss to Ole Miss, Alabama figured out that Jacob Coker was its quarterback and watched him progress to the point where he made huge throws against Clemson in the national title game.

No. 1 Alabama rolls over Florida to run its record to 13-0.

Despite Saban’s protest earlier this week that “it’s never OK to lose a game,” it would seem that nobody is better at doing so and using it to help his team improve. But this Alabama team didn’t lose and didn’t come particularly close, either. Aside from a crazy late comeback by Ole Miss that made things interesting back on Sept. 17, Alabama didn’t have to go down to the wire even once and will enter the College Football Playoff at 13-0 after a 54-16 laugher against Florida in the SEC championship game.

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In some ways, it was the perfect Saban game: Alabama won in dominant fashion but left enough sloppy stuff on film both offensively and defensively that Saban can spend the next four weeks ranting and raving and keeping everyone in Tuscaloosa on edge.

But if somehow Alabama falls short of a national title, it will be fair to wonder whether the Tide would have been better served getting challenged more regularly — or perhaps even defeated at some point — in the SEC.

Because when you look at the teams that will likely have a chance to knock out Alabama, all of them have faced a moment of truth in their season and became better for it on the other side.

Example A: Clemson, whose 43-42 loss to Pittsburgh on Nov. 12 was the culmination of a season-long struggle to focus and take care of the football, has been all business in three games since. The Tigers seem to be peaking as they enter the playoff off a 42-35 win against Virginia Tech in the ACC championship game.

Penn State rallies past Wisconsin to win Big Ten, makes Playoff case.

Example B: Ohio State’s loss to Penn State not only helped Urban Meyer regroup with a young team whose level of play had been up and down in the first half of the season, but it worked out well from a playoff perspective to lose the Big Ten East tiebreaker. While everyone else in the mix had to play Saturday and risk either injury or a loss, the Buckeyes got to kick back and watch without much concern they’ll be left out of the top four.

Example C: Washington, in retrospect, needed a wake-up call. This is a program that hasn’t been in the national spotlight for a while, and there’s a different pressure for players and coaches when they realize a playoff berth is potentially on the horizon. While losing 26-13 at home to Southern California looked bad so late in the season, the Huskies responded to beat Arizona State, Washington State and Colorado by a combined 130-45.

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Example D: If you just look at the last eight weeks of the season, you can make a strong argument Penn State has played better than anyone not named Alabama. Yes, at one point this team was 2-2 and had lost 49-10 at Michigan. That counts, and it’s probably why the Nittany Lions will just miss the College Football Playoff despite coming back to beat Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game 38-31. But teams do grow and evolve, and nobody has come further over the course of the season than James Franklin’s bunch after some early disappointment that required athletics director Sandy Barbour to come out with a statement that told the fan base to stand down on any hot seat talk. Since the fourth quarter of the Ohio State game, Penn State has beaten Purdue by 38, Iowa by 27, Indiana by 14, Rutgers by 39, Michigan State by 33 and now Wisconsin. Playoff worthy? We’ll see, but either way it’s a terrific job of growth after an early setback.

Playoff-bound Washington is just getting started.

In many ways, the story of conference championship weekend is that there was no story. The teams that were supposed to win did their jobs and made it easy on the selection committee. Barring a historic surprise, the only question is what order Ohio State, Clemson and Washington are slotted and what the semifinal matchups look like.

But it’s clear that regardless of who gets in or how the semifinals shake out, the playoff is a referendum on the greatness of Alabama.

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Given the margins of victory week after week and the overwhelming nature of its defense, there already is a conversation about whether this is Saban’s best team ever or perhaps one of the best college football teams of all time.

On the other hand, there are factors that could make skeptics question whether Alabama is really as good as these lopsided scores indicate.

For instance, quarterback Jalen Hurts was 11-for-20 for just 138 yards against Florida and still isn’t anything close to a polished passer. And the Gators, meanwhile, had some success in the passing games at times — their opening drive for a touchdown was picture perfect — and showed that there’s at least a little vulnerability in the secondary.

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A team that avoids turnovers and doesn’t give Alabama favorable field position due to big plays on special teams could absolutely have a chance to win. That’s easier said than done, and the more likely outcome is the kind of strangulation that leads to teams trying to do too much, making mistakes and paving the way for an Alabama runaway.

But that’s also what separates the Playoff teams from the also-rans in the SEC. There’s at least some excellence that suggests they’re more capable of playing the close-to-perfect game you’ll need to beat Alabama.

If Saturday revealed anything, it’s that the Playoff committee has a relatively easy job for the second year in a row and that Alabama still hasn’t really been tested, and even bruised, the way Saban’s teams usually are heading into the postseason.

Whether that matters remains to be seen. Maybe we’ll look back in January and understand they were just that good.