Alabama football has already played its share of closely contested games this season. Fans accustomed to unconditional dominance see these close games in a negative light, assuming that no other college football team should be able to play Alabama competitively.
While it is mildly concerning that Alabama lacks its dominant edge of the past, it is not reason for panic. The introductions of the NCAA transfer portal and NIL, in conjunction with the pandemic, have altered college football and injected parity into the game, even if only temporarily.
Additionally, a lull to some degree was inevitable. A decade of losing players early to the NFL draft en masse and having to replace coordinators and position coaches on an annual basis can make it difficult to sustain dominance.
Alabama Football: In a league of its own
It’s important for Alabama football fans to appreciate the absurd level of expectation within this program. The current “lull” has consisted mostly of winning close games, not actually losing them. Some Alabama fans would consider the team’s performance of the last two seasons to be a disappointment, yet the Tide has amassed a 20-3 record since winning the 2020 national championship.
Sure, Alabama has played an unusual amount of close games in that stretch. But it also has a 6-2 record in games decided by a touchdown or less, including a 2-1 record so far in 2022.
Should it win out in the regular season, this close game experience may pay dividends for the Crimson Tide in the postseason. Learning how to finish games is an incredibly important skill, and this Alabama team is getting plenty of lessons. Even the failed tests, such as the slip-up in Knoxville, provide invaluable learning opportunities for the team as well as the coaching staff.
Alabama’s starters already have a lot of experience this season playing a full four quarters. The ability to continue to exert maximal effort and focus 100-plus snaps into a football game can often be the difference between winning and losing. Additionally, nerves will not be an issue should Alabama find itself in a close postseason game. After all, the Crimson Tide has been there as much as anybody over the past two seasons. Playing in tight games and making winning plays in the fourth quarter have become a part of this team’s DNA.
Alabama Football: Will Reichard and the value of failure
Kicker is the ultimate clutch position, and senior kicker Will Reichard is the embodiment of this Alabama football team’s close game experience. Reichard is among the most clutch kickers in school history, and he has invaluable experience in close games that may benefit Alabama later in the season.
Already this season, Reichard has been to the mountaintop of kicking, hitting a game winner on the road against Texas. He has also hit rock bottom, going through a nightmarish three week stretch in which he went three for seven. Reichard missed two second half field goals against Texas A&M, nearly costing Alabama the game save for a last-second defensive stop. The following week, he missed a potential game winner against Tennessee. Of course, Alabama would lose that game three plays later.
Reichard caught a lot of heat for this “slump,” which was largely unwarranted. While the late 35-yard miss against A&M was uncharacteristic, Reichard’s other misses came from 47, 50, and 53 yards. He has also been perfect outside of this three game stretch. For the season, Will Reichard is 12-16 on field goal attempts, including three of five on attempts of 50-yards plus. Contrary to popular perception, he has been one of the best kickers in the country all season. The experience of missing some difficult yet important kicks and feeling as though he let the team down will only help Reichard down the stretch.
Alabama Football: Coaches learn too
While close game experience will help the players immensely, it will help the coaches just as much. The more close games a team plays, the more familiar a coaching staff becomes with the emotional makeup of the team. Coaches come to know who they can and can’t trust in certain high-pressure situations.
They also learn lessons in critical skills, such as clock management. Bill O’Brien was heavily criticized for not running the ball on Alabama’s final possession against Tennessee, ultimately leaving the Vols just enough time to win the game in regulation. In a similar situation down the line, fans hope that O’Brien will have learned from this experience.
Oftentimes, the outcome of close football games goes beyond preparation. These games can come down to a bounce-of-ball situation, or be determined by downright luck. Still, the more prepared a team is, the more likely it is to capitalize on opportunities to win a close game.
Alabama football may be more prepared than any team in the country by season’s end.