There is winning a football game, which is good.
But there is something different about controlling a football game, and Alabama hasn’t quite done that to Nick Saban’s satisfaction yet, least of all in Saturday’s win over Ole Miss.
“I always say that if you win but you don’t play well, that’s not a good thing,” Saban said after the 59-31 win.
He does always say that. He frequently cites LSU’s tipped-ball, Miracle In The Bluegrass win at Kentucky, a great moment for the Saban-coached Tigers that served as preface to a 31-0 beatdown by Alabama the next week. This year’s Alabama team hasn’t had to rely on any miracles yet, thanks to Tua Tagovailoa’s magical left arm and fleet of receivers. But Saban is wary that the day is coming if the Crimson Tide doesn’t play a more balanced and bludgeoning style.
“It was like the South Carolina game (earlier this year),” Saban said. “We scored a lot of points, but they ran 90 plays. Today, we ran 67 plays and (Ole Miss) ran 88. And the cumulative effect of that times 12 (in a 12-game regular season) is a lot of plays.”
Much of the grumbling in the stands on Saturday was about the defense as Ole Miss rolled up 476 yards and John Rhys Plumlee ran like he was Johnny Manziel of old. To be fair, he threw like an old Johnny Manziel, going 10-for-28. He was game for a freshman, but more proficient quarterbacks await.
Alabama’s old style of grabbing an opponent, squeezing like an anaconda and finishing them off — Joyless Murderball, to use the scientific name — didn’t thrill those whose preferences include highlight runs and explosive plays. Of course, Saban wants those things too. But the paradox is, perhaps, that no team achieves both in every game. A single contest like Saturday isn’t a full sample size, or an irrevocable referendum on defense. Alabama’s injury problems — guys like Dylan Moses, Josh McMillon and LaBryan Ray, who were out, and others like Terrell Lewis, who was clearly not 100 percent, take a toll. That also contributes to a depth issue and the only way to build depth is to play young players, so you wind up with inexperienced freshmen and sophomores giving up chunks of yardage in the fourth quarter.
That’s a problem of the whole team, not a single unit. That’s not meant to let the defense off the hook for many Saturday problems — loss of containment that allowed Plumlee to convert several third downs by running, penalties that prolonged drives, missed tackles at a higher rate than Alabama, traditionally the best in the nation under Saban at putting guys on the ground, used to make.
What comes next, though, isn’t Armageddon. It’s an open week, a chance to teach that Saban is “looking forward to,” as he said in a calm postgame interview. There was no ranting, no references to Ole Miss doing anything related to a tin horn. There is just a recognition of a need to improve.
That doesn’t mean the old style is going to return, at least this year. No one is going to drop a million gallons of water on the raging prairie fire that is the Alabama offense. Opponents who get burned to a crisp are no better off than those who get squeezed into pulp, after all. But the Crimson Tide does need to have the capability to squeeze a bit, when the situation calls for it.
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or 205-722-0225.