TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — "It'll be a lot more fun next week for the Iron Bowl," one Crimson Tide fan said outside Bryant Denny Stadium on Saturday.
"Citadel players won't lay a hand on Tua," sniffed another member of the Tide faithful before No. 1 Alabama's 50-17 victory against the Bulldogs. "Two touchdowns and he's out of there."
Somewhere between the pregame putdowns and a shocking 10-10 tie at halftime, the 'Bama faithful among an announced crowd of 101,681 went from blase to very interested.
"It got loud," said Citadel linebacker Russell Hubbs. "Really loud."
Dante Smith's 45-yard touchdown run and a 48-yard field goal from Jacob Godek sent the Bulldogs sprinting to the locker room tied with the No. 1 team in the country, and reverberated around college football nation.
"The college football world is frozen in awe," read one post on Twitter.
In the locker room, Citadel coach Brent Thompson had to calm down his players.
"We realized that we could actually do this," said Smith, the Porter-Gaud product who added a 44-yard TD in the second half and finished with 130 rushing yards, more than five SEC teams produced against Alabama this season.
"It was a shock the world type deal. Tied at halftime with Alabama, not many teams can do that, and we had the opportunity."
Reality set in as Alabama (11-0) outscored the Bulldogs (4-6) by 40-7 in the second half. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, whom some suggested should not play at all against the overmatched Bulldogs, had to play three quarters and threw for 340 yards and three touchdowns, adding another score on the ground.
But for a couple of hours, The Citadel Bulldogs were blowing up.
"That is unreal exposure for us," said Citadel athletic director Mike Capaccio, who also pocketed a $500,000 guarantee check for the school. "We don't have an opportunity to get exposure like this very often, so this is great for us."
Even Alabama coach Nick Saban paid grudging respect.
"You've got to give them credit," Saban said. "They played with a lot of heart, they are very tough and physical and aggressive."
What went right
The Bulldogs took it to Alabama from the coin toss, winning the toss and running 12 plays and more than seven minutes off the clock on their first possession. The Citadel's 17 points are as many as Ole Miss, Missouri, LSU and Mississippi State managed against Alabama this season — combined.
Smith became the first running back to gain at least 130 yards against Alabama since Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott in 2015, and QB Brandon Rainey added 79 yards as The Citadel rushed for 275, the most rushing yards the Tide has allowed all season.
"We heard (Tim) Tebow saying that Alabama's practices are more intense than this game was going to be," Rainey said. "I hope he realizes now that is a little bit of a false statement and gives us a little more respect than that."
What went wrong
Saban became the latest coach to profess disappointment with the cut-blocking that is part of the triple-option offense.
"I know that these people (at The Citadel) do a really good job of executing what they do," he said. "But I'm a person who really doesn't believe in cut-blocking. I think it's a dangerous play in football, and that offense is based on a lot of cut-blocking. It's not against the rules, so nobody's doing anything wrong.
"But I certainly wish that we would change some of the rules for player safety."
Tied 10-10 at the half, Alabama promptly fumbled the second-half kickoff, the turnover forced by The Citadel's Nkem Njoku and recovered by Ryland Ayers at the Tide 31.
But with a chance to go ahead by a touchdown, the Bulldogs were stopped for no gain on third and 2, and then committed a false start to spoil a 40-yard field goal chance. Godek missed from 45 yards, and Alabama was off.
Tagovailoa hit Henry Ruggs for a 54-yard pass to set up the go-ahead TD, and Anfernee Jennings returned a Bulldogs fumble for a score just 12 seconds later. At 24-10, the rout was on.
"Our guys were really fired up at halftime and thought we could hang in there with them a little longer," Thompson said. "We got the turnover there, but when we couldn't convert it into points, that set us back."
The Citadel finishes the season Nov. 29 against Charleston Southern at Johnson Hagood Stadium.