Talty: What could have been defines the Alabama season with barely alive playoff hopes

Alabama college football playoff hopes aren’t officially dead just yet, but it will take more mayhem and carnage to stand any chance of making the cut.

Assuming Alabama doesn’t make the field, the 2022 season recap will raise a lot of what-if questions.

What if Bryce Young hadn’t injured himself against Arkansas? What if Will Reichard made that 50-yard field goal against Tennessee? What if Bill O’Brien was actually a competent offensive coordinator? You go on and on.

How you remember that Alabama team depends so much on your expectations and what you find joy in as you settle into Bryant-Denny Stadium or in front of your TV. Can you enjoy a season that doesn’t end with Nick Saban hoisting a trophy over his head as confetti falls around him? Can you appreciate individual brilliance amid wider disappointment?

Many, including mine, expected Alabama to go through its regular schedule en route to another appearance at a national championship game. With two of the nation’s top returners in Young and Will Anderson, it felt like a pretty safe bet. Especially considering a failing Alabama team found a way to do this last season and had plenty of revenge ammo to serve as offseason motivation.

But it never clicked the way Saban and others had hoped. It was clear from the close decision against Texas in Week 2 that something was amiss with this Alabama team compared to what we are all used to seeing in a Saban-led operation. Alabama repeatedly struggled on the road, resulting in two losses that doomed its chances of living up to those high preseason expectations. Alabama didn’t have the killer instinct that has been its trademark for so many years, allowing too many underperforming teams to hang around this season. If you’re a pessimist, you’ll point out that Alabama could easily suffer four losses this season. The optimistic prospect is that if two games go the other way, Alabama is undefeated at the moment and has a suspension to reach the playoffs.

In reality, however, Alabama will be sitting at home with two losses next Saturday when LSU plays Georgia for the SEC championship. The tide hasn’t got a chance to improve its standing at this point, and if Ohio State is ahead of them with a loss in next week’s rankings, that’s it. Alabama will travel to Miami or elsewhere to attend a non-playoff bowl game for the second time in four years.

For his part, Saban again defended his team against outside criticism after Saturday’s Iron Bowl victory. Calling out the naysayers and reminding everyone that the foundation of the program was built on positivity, he arrived in Tuscaloosa to see a surge of support. Given the circumstances, he has argued as best he can that the culture of this team is not the problem.

“The culture of the program is as good as ever and the players are competing just as well as ever,” Saban said, “so I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the culture here. We lost two games by four points.”

TIED TOGETHER: Nick Saban, Alabama players have something to say to negative Tide fans

As much as Saban and other coaches like to pretend they don’t read or hear what’s being said about their program, it was obvious that the criticism had put Saban on the defensive. He had previously admitted the criticism from former players, which included Greg McElroy, “breaks my heart”. Very perceptive and perceptive, Saban knows that the question of whether the Alabama standard slips will dominate the offseason. It’s been admirable for Saban to defend his players the way he did after the Iron Bowl and he’s scored well, but deep down he must still be disappointed that a team with so much talent doesn’t stand a chance , all winning season. And if he doesn’t have that feeling right now, he will if he ever watches the movie where LSU loses to Texas A&M and remembers that somehow the team won the SEC West .

If you want to remember this team as a disappointment, you certainly can. You can mourn Saban, who has decided to stay with offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien and defensive coordinator Pete Golding for another season. You may wonder how different the offense could have been if Louisville transferee Tyler Harrell had had the impact everyone expected when he picked Alabama. You can shudder against the tide at any of LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels’ 95 rushing yards. You may get upset at how unfair it is to Bryce Young that despite everything he’s given to the program, he’ll never win a national championship as a starting quarterback.

Or you can remember how brilliant Young was, how he so often resembled a magician on the field because he was drawing something out of nowhere. You can smile at how miserable Will Anderson was able to make opposing offensive linemen and quarterbacks. You can still cheer for Terrion Arnold’s last-second defense, which denied Jimbo Fisher a win against Saban after their public argument in the summer.

And of course there’s the compromise option: you remember it for both. You resent the unfulfilled potential while still appreciating that you received two years of Young’s magic. They angrily watch teams like TCU and USC, confident Alabama would beat both but relieved that at least Saban is still beating Lane Kiffin and Auburn again.

This 2022 season in Alabama will be best remembered for what could have been, but what you remember most is up to interpretation.

Most Pumped Fanbase: South Carolina

Consider the past two weeks for Shane Beamer: he won back-to-back games against top-10 opponents, edged his biggest rival out of the playoff race AND had a chance to challenge Jesse Palmer after all of that. There might be some wistfulness in the coming months that Spencer Rattler hasn’t been put to better use this season by boring offensive play-calling, but ending the year 8-4 and two big season-ending wins gives Beamer and his South Carolina The offseason saw significant momentum in the program. With a strong recruitment record and one or two staff changes, the future in Colombia is looking very bright.

The Most Panicked Fanbase: Ohio State

I couldn’t help but catch a glimpse of a few Ohio State message boards after Michigan throttled Ohio State, 45-23, in the big game. The reaction was predictably extreme, including calls for Ryan Day’s sacking. That’s not going to happen, of course, but it underscores the high stakes that come with running a championship-or-bust program. Ohio State could still sneak into the playoffs, but it didn’t deserve that after its lackluster performance in its biggest game of the season.

John Talty is a sports editor and SEC insider for Alabama Media Group. He is the bestselling author of “Nick Saban’s Leadership Secrets: How Alabama’s Coach Became the Greatest Ever.”