Like the clever kid who peeks into the closet before Christmas, Nick Saban probably knows in advance he is going to get that XBox 360 that has been tucked away in the hall closet for all of November. Saban didn’t ask for a gaming system on Saturday, though. He asked for bad press.
Even before he asked, Saban probably knew the reviews for the No. 1 Crimson Tide’s 45-23 win against No. 22 Texas A&M weren’t going to be as gushing as the first three weeks of hyperbole, which resulted in everything from hypothetical Alabama vs. NFL Challenge Matches to satellite analysis of which countries Alabama could invade without much resistance.
His team did beat a nationally-ranked opponent by three touchdowns but the Crimson Tide also allowed 22 first downs, committed nine penalties and kicked four punts whose combined air yardage wouldn’t have stretched from one end zone to the other. So when Saban requested that the media “sort of look at some of the things that we didn’t do well,” he knew he was asking for something that he was going to get anyway.
No one is going to be too scathing about what was a fairly comfortable win, unless Skip Bayless proclaims this as the dynasty-toppling apocalypse that he has proclaimed about eight other times in the last three years. But there was at least a whiff of mortality to explore.
For the first time this season, Alabama didn’t seem like something more than a championship level football team. There’s nothing wrong with being at championship level, but for three weeks now, the discussion has been about Alabama’s place in history. Greatest team ever? Greatest offense ever? (Saban did get that question in the postgame media scrum.)
Against Texas A&M, though, they looked like the current New York Yankees, for instance. They could hit home runs, particularly the prodigious Tua Tagovailoa, but on Saturday they didn’t look sound through the entire linup.
The defensive line was disruptive of Aggie quarterback Kellen Mond’s entire afternoon. But there were occasions where Mond slipped loose and gained big yardage. There were times when Alabama’s offense sputtered. That included the final 20 minutes — Jalen Hurts didn’t look great, although he also had to deal with the restricted playbook that is the lot of the backup quarterback.
There were times Alabama’s offensive line was neutralized on running plays. Damien Harris had a long run and Najee Harris had a nice stretch in the fourth quarter, but there was never the same feeling that you sometimes got with the old Alabama offense, the feeling that Crimson Tide could close out an opponent by pushing ahead like an angry hippopotamus among the water lilies. Some of that, of course, is a trade-off that comes from having Tagovailoa.
His big-play-from-anywhere capability was bound to change the offense. Sooner or later in a football season, an opponent will physically challenge a team, even an Alabama team. Alabama has to be ready for that. It also has to focus at keeping penalties to a minimum and keep polishing its special teams. Small things, perhaps, but in big games, small things grow large.
That’s a short list, prepared before Saban’s request for a little less rat poison and a little more cage-rattling. Most of the fans at Bryant-Denny Stadium saw areas that need work. There was nothing to cause panic. Alabama has spent three weeks looking down from the mountaintop, though, and there’s no problem with the fans — and Saban — wanting to stay there.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.