TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- One by one, teammates stopped and patted Vinnie Sunseri on the shoulder. Alabama's starting safety was in street clothes, limping gingerly with a bum knee. "How bad is it?" they wanted to know. And from high up in the stands, it was obvious. Their body language in response said it all: A quick shake of the head, a long hug and a slow walk away.
Not Sunseri. Not this season.
The destiny of a championship hopeful is precarious at best. Ask Texas A&M. Johnny Manziel fell awkwardly on his arm, hurt his elbow and was forced to the sidelines late against Auburn. His backup came on and the offense went three and out. Auburn took the ball and marched the length of the field for the go-ahead touchdown. A valiant return by Manziel proved too little, too late. With two losses, the Aggies have to hope for chaos to reenter the SEC West race.
Top-ranked Alabama didn't suffer the same fate against Arkansas. With Sunseri watching from the sideline, the Crimson Tide took care of business and dominated the Razorbacks, 52-0, to remain comfortably in the driver's seat to reach Pasadena, Calif., for the BCS National Championship. But with its most experienced safety's season suddenly in doubt, the ride will be shakier than expected.
"It could be serious," UA coach Nick Saban said of Sunseri's injury, listlessly noting that an MRI would deliver the final verdict on Sunday.
"We need some guys to get some experience because we're going to need some depth. Obviously as you lose players, other guys have to step up and play. We had to do a lot of shuffling in the secondary tonight."
If there was a list of the top three defenders Alabama couldn't afford to lose, Sunseri's name would have been on it. Mark Barron and Robert Lester are gone to the NFL. Dee Milliner is gone, too. Alabama has tried John Fulton, Cyrus Jones, Eddie Jackson and Bradley Sylve out to fill his shoes, and none has panned out. Nick Perry, a veteran safety, had season-ending surgery on his shoulder last month. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, regarded as one of the best safeties in the country, was suspended for the past two weeks.
Sunseri, an impact player from the day he signed with Alabama in 2011, had brought stability to the carousel known as Alabama's secondary. His leadership and big-play ability have been huge. When the Tide needed something to happen against Texas A&M early in the season, he intercepted a pass, shook Manziel out of his shoes and scampered the length of the field for a touchdown.
Without Sunseri, who knows what Alabama's fate will be? Jarrick Williams, Landon Collins and Geno Smith are all talented replacements, but there's a reason none of the three was starting in his spot coming into the weekend. Sunseri was supposed to be the one they'd follow. He was supposed to be the anchor.
"There's not a guy on our team that does a better job of setting an example when it comes to trying to be everything he can be," Saban said of Sunseri. "He's just a phenomenal guy to have on your team all the way around.
"He's going to be a part of our team whether he can play or not."
Sunseri put on his best happy face in the second half, smacking teammates on the behind after delivering the bad news during the game. He sat by Collins, smiled and told him it would be OK. When Jones came off the field after a late interception, Sunseri was the first one to greet him, delivering a bear hug to the true sophomore who was playing wide receiver only a year ago.
"Great leader, great leader," Collins said. "I looked up to him. He's helped me out at free safety with the calls and getting me to settle down. He's going to be missed."
Said veteran linebacker C.J. Mosley: "Whether he's playing or not, he's going to be on the sideline helping the young players out."
Against Arkansas, the defense looked fine. Sunseri's absence wasn't felt in the box score. Alabama forced three turnovers while limiting Brandon Allen to 7 completions on 25 attempts. The Razorbacks' two talented tailbacks -- Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams -- rushed for just 125 yards on 31 carries. The two came into the weekend ranked in the top 10 in the SEC in rushing.
Alabama's offense, meanwhile, continued humming along. Quarterback AJ McCarron toyed with the defense, picking apart Arkansas for 180 yards and three touchdowns. Kenyan Drake ran for 104 yards and two scores, while T.J. Yeldon rushed for another 88 yards and a touchdown. Alabama's third-string tailback, Derrick Henry, had 115 yards on six carries. All told, the Tide accounted for 532 total yards of offense.
But the tone after the game was stoic. The win against Arkansas came at a cost. A number of players were banged up after facing one of the more physical teams they'll see all year. Ice baths and hot tubs will be in high demand over the next 24 hours.
Sunseri, though, will face the trainer's table.
Only a week ago, Sunseri was throwing wads of paper at wide receiver Kevin Norwood, jumping up and down like a giddy child. He would be a key part of Alabama's quest for a third consecutive national championship. Another win on the road ensured it.
On Saturday, he was hobbling from teammate to teammate to tell them the bad news. He finally ventured to the far end of the bench and watched the rest of the game in silence. Alabama was moving on without him.
How far the Tide will go remains to be seen. What happens next is destiny.