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Alabama Championship
The Alabama Crimson Tide’s comeback win in the National College Football Playoff championship over beloved Georgia Bulldogs reminded Lang Whitaker of lessons he learned the last time he went searching for elephants.
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Lang’s World: Ten pearls of Whitaker’s wit and wisdom on sports and beyond 1.11.18

By Lang Whitaker
Grind City Media

The old pickup truck inched through the thick brush, creating a soundtrack of snapping sticks below and squealing limbs on either side, scraping against the car’s already weathered paint. It was late in the afternoon, and as the sun was beginning its slow descent toward the horizon, we drove directly toward it, forcing us to squint to see what was in front of us.

My wife and I were on the Laikipia Plateau in central Kenya, on the first day of a two-week trip to Africa. It was a trip we had been talking about and hoping to make for years, and then a few years ago we managed to pull everything together and commit to the journey. So one day we flew halfway across the globe and into Nairobi, then boarded a smaller plane and flew north for a while, where we were eventually met by a group of Samburu tribesmen who loaded us into the back of this converted pickup truck and drove us for another hour.

As our dizzying journey finally neared the camp, we were asked if we wanted to make a brief detour to see if we could find some elephants. And when you are asked a question like that, there is only one correct answer: Yes, of course we wanted to find some elephants.

So the pickup truck veered off the dirt path and started nosing through the woods. One of the tribesmen, a man named Mex whose hair was braided to his elbows and dyed a bright pink, hopped out of the truck and walked alongside us, using a machete to clear any larger obstructions.

Then all of a sudden, there they were. We poked through a particularly dense group of trees and into a clearing, and about ten feet in front of us stood an elephant, probably a dozen feet tall, using his trunk to snap branches off of trees and then munching quietly on the leaves. Two other elephants were a few feet away, also digging into dinner.

As one might expect, the elephant that was closest to us did not seem thrilled that we had invited ourselves to join dinner. In mid-bite, he stopped chewing and swiveled his head around to consider us. We were in the wild, literally face to face with one of the largest animals I’ve ever seen. A feeling of pure fear coursed through me, and as we stood there in the back of the truck, my wife and I froze. “We’re too close,” she whispered under her breath.

Seconds later, the elephant turned his attention from us and back to his meal, having won the stare-down. While I searched for my breath, Mex hopped into the back of the truck with us as we quietly regarded this pachyderm dinner party. I asked Mex what he would have done had the elephant started chasing us? At least we were in a truck that could presumably outrun the elephant. If you were on foot and the elephant was after you, what in the world would you do?

Mex shrugged. “Elephants run fast, but in a straight line.”

So if an elephant is after you, you just… you don’t run in a straight line?

“You zig, you zag. Then they can’t catch you.”

Nick Saban tied Bear Bryant with his sixth college football national championship, which includes five in the past nine years at Alabama. Photo Credit: Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

I have no idea whether Mex’s advice actually works, but it came to mind on Monday night during the College Football National Championship game. This analogy may be a bit too literal -- you know, elephants and all -- but the Alabama Crimson Tide, the lumbering dominant beast of college football, has been the best team for the last decade under Coach Nick Saban, winning four of the last eight titles. They’ve been awesome, yet they have also been mostly humorless and unimaginative. They were great, and they were going to come after you relentlessly, but mostly in a straight line.

But this past Monday, with their season on the line and their claim to college football dominance at risk, the big bad elephant showed the world that they had learned how to zig and how to zag. And now, we might all be in trouble.

Heading into the championship game, I suspected my Georgia Bulldogs were set up well to compete against this Alabama squad. Just like in previous years, the Tide had a dynamic defense and a mostly regressive offense. It may not be great for social media purposes, but Saban prioritizes defense over offense and, as a result, he’s won a lot.

Alabama’s plan of attack was no mystery to anyone who has seen them before: They might score a few points with their offense, but they’d win with their defense. A risk-averse offense with a risk-causing defense was a potent combination for Saban. No matter what, Alabama would figure out a way to score more than you could counter against their nightmare of a defense.

But I thought UGA had a chance. We knew that as great as Alabama has been all season, winning their first eleven games this season, they were also not unbeatable, having lost just a few weeks ago to Auburn. And that Auburn game seemed to provide a blueprint other teams could follow if they were looking to best this Bama squad: Spread out that powerful defense and attack it on the edges, which in theory should soften up the middle of the field. And once you get a lead against a Saban defense -- that is, if you can get a lead against a Saban defense -- then the Alabama offense has to play from behind. And that’s not where any offense wants to be, much less this Alabama attack helmed by sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts, who is a terrific read-option runner but has struggled with accuracy on deeper throws.

If UGA could somehow scratch out a few points early and stake themselves to a bit of a lead, I figured, they might have a chance to beat Alabama. Not that they definitely would win, but they might have a chance. Because when you’re playing against Alabama, a chance is usually the best for which you can hope.

And lo and behold, that’s pretty much exactly how things played out. The first quarter was mostly both teams feeling each other out, with Alabama missing their one field goal attempt in the period, most likely due to a long-standing schadenfreude situation involving Saban and his attitude toward placekickers.

But in the second quarter, UGA began finding some room around the edges of Alabama’s defense. Consecutive long drives produced field goals for UGA and seemed to wear down the voracious Alabama front line. To finish off the half, UGA punched in a TD on a direct snap to wide receiver Mecole Hardman. That score gave UGA a 13-0 halftime lead. And that, it turns out, is what changed everything, not just in this game, but maybe in college football for the next few years.

Alabama freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa showed in Monday's national championship game that he has the arm and vision to help maintain the Tide's dominance atop the college football world. Photo Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

When Alabama took the field to start the second half, Hurts remained on the sideline, replaced instead by freshman Tua Tagovailoa, who spent his first season mostly on the bench, seeing spot duty in a few blowouts. And suddenly, that Alabama team that had been chugging along looked like a completely different animal. Tagovailoa started taking shots downfield, which loosened up Georgia’s fearsome linebacker core, and the one-note Alabama offense that gave Georgia its best chance to win no longer existed. The Tide started chipping away, and before you knew it, the game had been flipped. The Tide went on to win it in overtime, 26-23.

As good as UGA’s defense has been all season, it was always the secondary that was our weakest link. Saban diagnosed that and went to extreme lengths, including benching the quarterback who entered the game with a 25-2 record as a starter, to directly attack UGA where we were most vulnerable.

You can look at Saban’s benching of Hurts as one of two things:

1) It was a sign of Saban’s singular guts and smarts. In the highest-pressure game of the season, Saban was unafraid to insert a rookie and give him the keys to the car, which in retrospect was the exact right decision. How many other coaches would be so willing to deviate from what brought them to this point?

Or, 2) Only a terrible coach would not have made the same decision, faced with the same options. Hurts, after all, had led Alabama to a grand total of zero points in 30 minutes, and it didn’t seem as though the Tide were anywhere close to breaking through in the second half. If they wanted to win this game, Alabama had to do something differently.

No matter how you interpret Saban’s decision, and I’m pretty sure geography will play a large part in how people parse Saban’s call, what is clear is that it was the correct choice. Tagovailoa was able to snatch whatever momentum was floating around there in Mercedes-Benz Stadium and channel it for Alabama.

It was clear that UGA and coach Kirby Smart, who famously apprenticed under Saban, came into the game with a plan that worked. Once Alabama recognized that it was being outschemed, there was an ensuing scheme change. As my colleague Mike Wallace noted in the Grind City Media office yesterday, UGA was prepared to beat the 2017 Alabama team; they didn’t know they were going to have to play against the 2018 Alabama team.

What should UGA have done differently? I’m not sure what there was to do differently, other than game-plan for a quarterback that had barely played all season. Sure, the officiating was hilariously one-sided, but I don’t think that cost UGA the game. Against the most powerful team in college football, UGA played pretty well. Alabama just figured out how to zig and zag.

The scariest part about it is that Tagovailoa was a true freshman. Bama running back Najee Harris, who had 64 yards on 6 carries? Also a true freshman. Receiver DeVonta Smith, who caught a 41-yard bomb from Tagovailoa to end it in overtime? Yeah, he’s a rookie, too. Which is to say that as much as opposing college football fans may wish otherwise, Alabama isn’t going anywhere. Saban will continue to rake in top-five recruiting classes and reload his defense, which is the one area where we know Saban won’t have any problems -- it was always his lack of a creative offense that presented everyone else an opening to topple the Tide. And now that opening seems to have not only been closed, but locked and put away for a while with the arrival of Tagovailoa.

Be on alert, college football. The elephant has learned how to zig and zag. The bots are now sentient. Alabama is on top – now and, sigh, seemingly forever.

As for me, I am just worn out. When Alabama kicker Andy Pappanastos shanked his attempt at a game-winning field goal, sending it to overtime, I sat up straight and forced myself to finally consider that UGA might win the National Championship. When we took a 23-20 lead on a “Hot” Rod Blankenship field goal, I felt a little better. When we sacked Tagovailoa on first down for a 16-yard loss, I allowed a little giddiness to creep in.

The pass play that beat Georgia in overtime of the national championship game will haunt Lang Whitaker for quite some time. Photo Credit: Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

Then on second down, Tagovailoa dropped back, froze the two safeties with a long look to his right, and then lofted a gorgeous spiral down the left sideline. And as that ball hung in the air for what felt like five minutes, something shot through my body -- a chill of fear; a moment of realization; perhaps even an embolism -- and before the ball started spinning back toward the earth, I knew it was over. For the second time in a calendar year, my football team had blown a big lead in the second half of a championship game. The similarities between Super Bowl LI and the College National Championship are pretty obvious, and I don’t even really want to go there, at least not right now.

Suffice to say, I get it.

Being an optimistic person, I usually try to look at things the other way. UGA made it to the championship game in coach Kirby Smart’s second year. Our quarterback, Jake Fromm, is a freshman just like Tagovailoa, and we have the nation’s number one recruiting class coming in next season. The UGA football program is set up to be really good for a really long time.

UGA may not be on Alabama’s level – not quite yet – but outrunning the elephant may not happen overnight, or even on one Monday night in January.

All I can do from my seat on the couch is yell and scream and cover my eyes and, most of all, offer my trust. One of these days, one of my teams will get a win when it counts. There’s always next year.

Like ol’ Saban himself always says, it’s about the process. So I guess I’ll just trust the process.

Oh, and go Falcons.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Lang Whitaker are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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