Nick Saban smiled. And that was the first clue that there was something different about this game. Alabama's enigmatic, hypercritical head coach nodded and smiled and even laughed on camera Saturday afternoon.
If you were one of the few college football fans who missed the epic showdown between No. 1 Alabama and No. 6 Texas A&M, you might have tuned in for the postgame action, saw Saban and wondered what on earth was going on. Was he running a fever in that notorious Texas heat? Was he delirious and in need of medical attention? Surely it had to be, because only a force of nature could crack Saban's impervious funny bone.
The same man who scolded a room full of reporters earlier in the week, stalking off stage while sarcastically thanking them for their interest in the game, was suddenly warm and personable. He even made a joke, pointing out that the media had tried to make the game about a "61-year-old guy against that good quarterback," the one they call Johnny Football. In that context, "We didn't have much of a chance," Saban said, drawing laughter from many of the same reporters who sat in stunned silence only days earlier.
Everything about the game at Kyle Field was stunning. It was a shock to the senses in that it was so unlike everything we've come to expect from Alabama. It wasn't anything like the roughcast days of Paul "Bear" Bryant, who also coached the "Junction Boys" at Texas A&M. Rather, The Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser gave the 49-42 Alabama win the all-too-fitting headline, "The Gumption Boys." Old-school Alabama turned to new-school tactics to beat A&M, showing a plucky, creative and even entertaining side never seen before.
It was nothing like Alabama and yet the Crimson Tide survived, which is probably why Saban looked so relieved. He was forced into a game he hoped to avoid, a high-scoring shootout against an opponent that ought to be labeled his team's kryptonite. Still, he won. When it was suggested that he ought be happy to never see Johnny Manziel again, Saban couldn't help but let a wild grin cross his face. He knew it was true.
"I wish we played better," he said. "I'll be the first one to say that."
David Hasselhoff should have been in East Texas to see a different kind of iron curtain fall. Alabama's vaunted defense, Saban's crimson-cloaked unit that has famously oppressed offenses with its overwhelming speed and strength for years now, was all but decimated by the upstart Aggies, who only a year earlier entered the SEC fray. The front seven was a step slow and the secondary was grossly outmanned. Defenders dropped like flies, lurching toward the sideline in search of an IV.
Texas A&M rolled up Alabama for the most total yards allowed in school history (626). And all Saban could do was tip his cap -- to Manziel, who accounted for 562 yards on his own, and to Mike Evans, who manhandled Alabama's cornerbacks to the tune of 279 yards and a touchdown. After the game, Saban met Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin at midfield and shouted, "You took 10 years off my life." If not for AJ McCarron & Co. answering the bell on offense, the Tide would have been upset and their championship hopes diminished.
"Even though it got ugly at times, they were all in and they competed," Saban said of his team's effort.
"It was a great win," Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley said. "It was a little sloppy, but at the end of the day we came out with the win, and that's what matters."
Mosley, like many of his teammates on defense, was matter-of-fact about the whole thing, acknowledging the unfamiliar position of needing the offense to bail them out. When Manziel scrambled, escaped a defensive lineman's grasp and heaved the most improbable of 12-yard receptions in the second quarter, Mosley threw up his hands and accepted his fate. He was OK with looking bad, as long as the result was the same and his team was still undefeated.
"@JManziel2 and @MikeEvans13_ [y'all] balled out today," Mosley tweeted after the game, "couldn't find u after the game so I'm giving [you] a [shout out] #respect"
Alabama couldn't be anything but complimentary of Manziel and Texas A&M's performance. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix said, "He's a great quarterback, if you ask me," marveling at Manziel's ability to throw the ball 50 yards on the run. Fellow safety Vinnie Sunseri said, "As much as everyone talks about him off the field, I think he's a great guy."
Manziel's high-wire tactics and outsized persona wouldn't work in Alabama's borderline Marxist model, but even Saban had to appreciate what one athlete was capable of doing with the football in his hands.
"Johnny Manziel is a great competitor," Saban said. "He's a great player out there on the field. He makes a lot of plays with his feet and his arm."
Saban conceded credit to the Texas A&M coaching staff as well, saying, "Our hat's off to them."
It was a battle of wills, and though Alabama clearly won the heated contest, Saban looked fried. Smiling, almost dazed, Saban was relieved to escape College Station with a win. It didn't happen the way he wanted, but he could live with the outcome.
"We improved as a team," he said. "Obviously, we haven't put it all together yet."
And with that, the aura of happiness seemed to fade from Saban's face. Work was ahead, and that required his complete focus. He survived one challenge in Texas A&M, but plenty of others await, namely Ole Miss in two weeks and LSU in November.
Maybe then we'll see Saban's smile return, but don't count on it. This game was different.