On the third week of the 2013 college football season, we saw the best game of the season: Alabama-Oregon.
The strange thing was, the Crimson Tide was playing in Texas, while the Ducks battled on their home turf in Eugene.
But as Alabama found itself in a struggle with Texas A&M while Oregon trounced Tennessee, thoughts turned to the national championship game that might be, and one that has not been.
During the previous three seasons, one has played in the BCS title game, but Alabama and Oregon have eluded each other. The Tide owns two straight titles, and three years ago Oregon fell to Auburn on a final-play field goal.
The programs have been pointed toward each other since 2010, but something has interfered along the way.
For Alabama, it was Cam Newton’s remarkable play three years ago. For Oregon, it was Stanford rugged defense holding the high-flying Ducks to 14 points in an overtime loss last season, a year after Oregon scored 53 at Stanford.
But this past Saturday, in a scouting exercise that required a remote or dual screens with the simultaneous kickoffs, the Tide and Ducks looked meant for each other.
Oregon fans sensed it. They cranked up the chant, “We want Bama!”
That was just before the students in Autzen Stadium chanted, in full snark, “S-E-C! S-E-C! S-E-C!” The Ducks were lining up to kick an extra point to make it 31-7 late in the second quarter against the Vols.
No problem with fans, especially students, tickled about a performance, but even they had to know Tennessee is rebuilding under Butch Jones. In SEC play, only Mississippi and Kentucky have a worse record than Tennessee in the past three years. Oregon was not boat racing LSU or Georgia.
Still, it has been impressive stuff from Oregon this season. The Ducks won at Virginia by a similar margin a week earlier, and quarterback Marcus Mariota continued his amazing play with 456 passing yards and four touchdowns against the Vols.
Mariota belongs on the short list of college football’s most dynamic quarterbacks, along with Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, Clemson’s Tajh Boyd and Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, and he might be the most effective engineer of the up-tempo spread Chip Kelly introduced at Oregon as offensive coordinator in 2007 and continued to develop as the Ducks’ head coach. With a seasoned Mariota, the Ducks may even have found a new gear under new coach Mark Helfrich.
Could Oregon succeed against Alabama’s defense? Texas A&M did, amassing 628 yards against the Tide. But after falling behind 14-0, Alabama put the clamps down on Manziel, long enough to score the game’s next five touchdowns.
Manziel tossed two interceptions, and the Aggies punted twice in A&M’s full possessions while the game flipped. Manziel was amazing again late, but the Crimson Tide made its midgame stand hold up for the most impressive victory by any team in the nation this season.
As for Texas A&M’s total yards, the most ever surrendered in an Alabama victory, and six touchdowns?
“I didn’t think they were going to score 42 points,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “But I kind of thought they’d score some points.”
Oregon would as well, and the Ducks have a better defense at this point than Texas A&M.
Plenty of obstacles remain, and circle Nov. 7 and Nov. 9 on the calendar. Oregon visits Stanford on that Thursday, and Alabama travels to LSU two days later. They are the best remaining games for the top two teams in everybody’s poll.
Alabama also will deal with the added distraction of a possible NCAA investigation after the Yahoo Sports report last week alleging that former All-America offensive lineman D.J. Fluker took money as a player there. It threw Saban off his news-conference game at midweek but appeared to have no impact on the Tide the rest of the week.
And after an impressionable weekend, maybe this season shapes up as the collision course between the South and West powers who have avoided each other for too long.