Last Night, I Couldn’t Win

“One, two princes kneel before you.”
-Spin Doctors, “Two Princes

I’m a spoiled college football fan, and my two favorite schools, Alabama and Ohio State faced off in the National Championship Monday night. It was bound to happen. The Crimson Tide defeated the Buckeyes 52-24, giving unbiased fans an unfulfilled but predictable ending to a tumultuous year, and me some pretty impractical anxiety.

The what-ifs leading up to contest actually started at the beginning of the season. First, I was worried if there would even be a season, but when the first pigskin was kicked off the tee in the Southeastern Conference, there was hope. The Big 10 finally obliged to the fan and financial pressures and allowed games to be played, and the possibility of the Tide and Buckeyes meeting in January became real.

Of course, there were plenty of speed bumps and stop signs along the way. Cancellations, postponements and some sketchy conference rule changes stretched that hope and reality until the end of the regular season.

Though there were a scarce amount of fans dotting the aqua seats of Hard Rock Stadium for the College Football Playoff title match, the feel before kickoff was as if the camera was hiding a sell-out crowd. After the ball sailed through the air for a touchback, I forgot how anti-climactic kickoffs are. And then one play later, OSU running back Trey Sermon got injured, and that set the tone for the night.

O-H-I-O!

In 1988, we moved to Dublin, Ohio. Just outside Columbus, we were in the shadow of a mammoth horseshoe that was speckled with scarlet every Saturday in fall. With Georgetown and Southern Connecticut State roots, we had a college football void to fill. Ohio State University became that program.

The state of Ohio has always been perplexing, and I’m not speaking of the strange reliance politicians have with its population. No matter where you go, somehow you’re going to meet someone from the small Midwestern state, and chances are they will be OSU supporters. With over half a million living alumni already, the university’s enrollment ranked third in the 2019-20 academic year with 61,391 students—and I didn’t go to school there.

Still, Ohio is a community not just confined to each big or rural city, and one that welcomed my family. I grasped the culture at a very young age, and though short and broken, our new roots were planted, nonetheless. And adopted and experienced memories are engrained.

The impact of Sermon’s injury was eerily similar to Ted Ginn Jr.’s in the 2006 BCS National Championship against Florida. The Gators routed the Buckeyes 41-14. Ginn returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown (obviously kickoffs were much more climatic back then), but sprained his left foot during the celebration. He didn’t play the rest of the game. That changed the dynamic of the game greatly. Monday night, Sermon injured his shoulder and was taken to the hospital shortly after. The good news is that Sermon is doing well, the bad news is that his injury was seemingly not as significant as Ginn’s 2006 debacle.

Alabama was just too good this season, and it was proven early and often—most notably, by their three-headed monster: Mac Jones, Najee Harris and Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith.

Smith is the first wide receiver to win the Heisman since Desmond Howard did for Michigan in 1991. The quick and uncoverable wideout proved why he was worthy of the honor. In the first half alone he set a College Football Playoff record by snatching 12 catches for 215 yards and three touchdowns. He got injured early in the second half and did not return.

Smith also can be remembered for his game-winning catch in the 2017 National Championship as a freshman. The great thing about memories is that new ones can always be created.

Roll Tide!

Nearly three decades removed from Ohio, with my loyalty challenged via an acceptance letter, I decided to attend the University of Alabama. Oh, how I used to loath those crimson tops and white pants, but I soon became accustomed to the classic look and unmatchable passion of storied tradition. We visited Tuscaloosa when the Crimson Tide hosted the New Mexico State Aggies in September of 2019. My support was solidified when the crowd erupted and the band boomed after Alabama scored on their first offensive play of the game. We were also happy the Aggies beat the massive spread.

Though I earned my master’s degree via Alabama’s online platform, our visit to the state was special. Birmingham is an amazing city with important history, and Tuscaloosa is a beautiful gem among an eclectic landscape. People said “hello” on city streets instead of their face buried in a small screen; they waved, offered assistance and smiled.

On game day, the Communications department hosted my family at their tailgate. We gathered on the veranda that overlooked the quad and immersed ourselves in tradition and expected greatness. Southern hospitality on both sides of our shoulders, and below, the Million Dollar Band strutted toward the stadium in perfect formation and tone. They grasped the attention of all, and then students and fans followed the ensemble to the stadium, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, except with a less-offensive and creepy paraphrase. It was extraordinary—also engrained. It wasn’t just fandom I generously paid for through tuition.     

On Monday, The program showed why they are storied, and Nick Saban added to his argument as the greatest college football coach to ever pace the sidelines. The decorated general has now won seven national titles, six at Alabama—the most by a coach in NCAA and university history. It wasn’t just Smith’s legendary performance, or Jones throwing for 464 yards and five touchdowns, or Harris rushing for 79 yards and two touchdowns—doubling his yards from scrimmage and accounting for another score receiving. No, the game didn’t come down to the dominance on the offense and defense, it was the first Alabama drive of the second half that was an interlude to the fat lady’s solo.

The Crimson Tide were up by 18 at halftime, a lead that could have easily vanished with OSU’s offensive firepower. For example, the Buckeyes went 75 yards on three plays in just 1:02 for their first drive of the second half, which ended in a touchdown. Alabama scored a measly 20-yard field goal after receiving the second-half kickoff. It was one of just three series that didn’t end with an Alabama star crossing the goal line, but it took 7:13 off the clock, and allowed for anxiety to trump the hope of a momentum shift. That drive was a great example of well-executed strategy—one that a fan comes to expect in Tuscaloosa.

The Ending We Anticipated

It was a year of disruption and uncertainty, one that is still lingering even after we tossed our 2020 calendars out of our homes and into a fire as if they were cursed. Though there were plenty of arguments of why OSU shouldn’t have been in the playoff, or the field needs to be expanded, or a G5 school should be given an opportunity to compete, they really didn’t matter. Alabama was going to win this championship whether you liked it or not.

Maybe we needed this, though. It could be argued that it was oddly satisfying to have a little normalcy right now. Nothing is more normal than Alabama competing for a national championship. And OSU, for that matter.        

I was hoping for this day, but didn’t know what to expect. Even though it could be claimed that I couldn’t lose, I actually couldn’t win. Either way, there would be a sense of disappointment. Maybe that’s the pessimistic narrative the pandemic created. Or maybe it’s just the delusional reasoning of an obsessed fan.

Or maybe we all needed this win. Roll Tide! And, still, Go Bucks!

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