College football: Feel-good moments for Nick Saban, Alabama

Crimson Tide has a close call

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The closing minutes of Alabama’s 21-17 comeback victory at Louisiana State and its ensuing celebration spawned two unexpected moments.

One was quarterback A.J. McCarron morphing from a guy bottled up all night to a man who executed an almost flawless five-play drive to keep the Crimson Tide’s hopes of a national title alive in raucous Death Valley.

The other was Alabama coach Nick Saban smiling — yes, smiling — as he embraced his quarterback on national television.

If ever there was a time for the notoriously humorless Saban to contort his face into a grin, it was then. Alabama, unbeaten and without a serious test to date, had escaped unscathed from a visit to what CBS announcer Verne Lundquist accidentally (though rather appropriately) described as “Death Stadium.”

Just like last year, the No. 1 Crimson Tide (now 9-0) would face a severe test against the Tigers. Alabama lost at home in overtime last season, then smothered Les Miles’ team in the national title game in New Orleans.

There will be no repeat encounter this year, especially with the Tigers falling to 7-2. But LSU nearly seized the inside track to the SEC West title as it took a 17-14 lead in the fourth quarter.

McCarron, interception-free in 204 pass attempts this season, was an unremarkable 10 of 22 for 93 yards when the Crimson Tide took over at their 28 with 1:34 remaining. For the next 43 seconds, he was surgical: 4 of 5, 72 yards and a 28-yard touchdown to tailback T.J. Yeldon.

It’s tempting to label McCarron’s nearly perfect two-minute drill as something of an iconic moment in Crimson Tide lore. In truth, whether such an appellation fits is to be determined.

Be clear about this: Should Alabama stumble in the next month, be it against Texas A&M this week or in the SEC title game (the only two realistic possibilities for a loss, considering the Crimson Tide closes the regular season with Auburn and Western Carolina), Saturday’s clinching drive becomes little more than a thrilling footnote in the history of a program with more than its share of championships.

Nonetheless, it will safely stand as one of the most riveting moments of this college football season. Alabama survived its division nemesis, survived the Mad Hatter and LSU, survived its first close call and survived “Death Stadium” with its unbeaten record and hopes of a national title repeat very much intact.

Weekend Risers

Kenjon Barner. On an epic night for the Oregon offense, Barner produced an imposing statistical line for the Ducks. The senior rolled up a school-record 321 yards and five touchdowns on 38 carries for the Ducks (9-0) in their 62-51 defeat of Southern California. The Trojans had never surrendered more than 56 points.

Kansas State. What’s the craziest stat of the season? Maybe it is the Wildcats’ 111-0 edge against opponents in points off turnovers. Kansas State managed three touchdowns off Oklahoma State giveaways in a 44-30 victory to remain undefeated. Still to come for the Wildcats: Texas Christian, Baylor and Texas.

Army-Navy. The Black Knights snapped a 13-game losing streak to service academies with their rout of Air Force. The Midshipmen became bowl eligible with a defeat of Florida Atlantic. And now, the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy will be at stake when the two meet in Philadelphia on Dec. 8.

Weekend Decliners

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