When: 1 p.m. Saturday
Where: Bryant-Denny Stadium
Finding the “Alabama Factor” can’t be done with even the most complex of formulas.
There may be an equation somewhere among all the variables that have helped Alabama win five national championships in the last 10 seasons. But it doesn’t come from top-ranked recruiting classes, arduous offseason workouts and dominance on the field may all play a part.
The variable that has played a part of Alabama’s dynasty might be, in the mathematical meaning, undefined.
“The No. 1 goal and objective for the spring is we have to re-establish the ‘Alabama Factor,’ to me,” coach Nick Saban said at the start of spring practice.
It’s been a focus for the team this spring, but it’s been a part of the program for much longer than that. Even before Saban spoke the phrase into existence, it was there.
“It isn’t a slogan, I didn’t come up with it,” Saban said. “It’s been who I am for the last 27-some years. It’s been who we are ever since we’ve been here. You could ask someone who played on the second team here that went 12-0 and lost in the SEC Championship Game and they could recite and tell you exactly what that is. So it’s not a slogan. It’s really what the program’s built on.”
‘The second team here’
Alabama’s 2008 team did not win a national championship. It was neither Saban’s most dominant team nor his most talented, but it embodied many of the characteristics he sought.
It had the “Alabama Factor,” even if he never used that term at that time. Offensive lineman Mike Johnson said he doesn’t remember Saban using the phrase, but it still has meaning to him.
“It’s not so much winning the game or scoring points or keeping the other team out of the end zone,” Johnson said. “It’s just breaking their will. That’s the way I’ve always looked at the ‘Alabama Factor’ or whatever you want to call it, ‘The Process’ or ‘Putting your foot down,’ whatever you want to call it. It’s breaking their will. It’s going out there and manning them up on the line of scrimmage, with our offensive line against their defensive line or our defensive line against their offensive line and breaking their will. Making them quit. Making them not want to play us anymore. When they come off the field, they’ll say ‘Man, I’m glad we don’t have to play them again this year. Man, I don’t look forward to playing against that team.’ That, to me, was the ‘Alabama Factor’ when we played.”
Johnson remembers Saban’s speech in the locker room before Alabama’s 27-21 win over LSU in Baton Rouge. Pieces of it have become a popular rallying cry that resonate more than a decade later.
“I want everybody to think here for a second,” Saban says. “How much does this game mean to you? Because if it means something to you, you can’t stand still. You understand? You play fast. You play strong. You play physical. You go out there and dominate the guy you’re playing against and make his (butt) quit. That’s our trademark. That’s our MO as a team. That’s what people know us as.”
There’s also a difference between Alabama’s trademark “Process” and the “Alabama Factor.”
“When I think of ‘Process,’ I think of Fourth Quarter (Conditioning), I think of offseason,” Johnson said. “’The Process’ to me always was mentally being able to get over the hurdles on a daily basis, that you’re not thinking about how bad something stinks or how not fun something is, you’re able to focus on what you have to do that day, that rep or that practice to be better for Saturday. That was ‘The Process’ to me. The ‘Alabama Factor,’ on the other hand, is when you do get to Saturdays.”
When the 2008 team got to Saturdays, it didn’t start with the reputation of invincibility that some of Alabama’s championship teams would later construct. It was recovering from a 7-6 season in 2007.
The 2008 team had to make its own name and prove itself. The players were motivated to restore Alabama’s place in college football after suffering through previous seasons, Johnson said. They played angry.
The 2008 team had to look different than previous Alabama teams. The 2019 Alabama team isn’t built the same as some of the teams of the past decade, but it can still have the same effect on opponents.
“(The 2018 team) scored a ton of points last year,” Johnson said. “They still played very, very good defense. But it’s a completely different brand. I think what he’s talking about is getting back to that brand where it’s not just scoring points or keeping them out of the end zone; it’s absolutely demolishing whatever is in front of you. Running right through it, them knowing what’s coming and not being able to do anything to stop it. They know you’re going to run up the A gap on third and one and there’s still nothing they can do about it no matter how many guys they have in the box. … It’s a scary notion, because I don’t want to take his quote and say something (Saban) wasn’t thinking. But at the same time, that’s what it was to me.”
The missing factor
Whatever the “Alabama Factor” had been for the last decade, something was missing from the equation at the end of the 2019 season.
Alabama allowed 10 games of 100+ rushing yards in 2018, the most of any season under Saban. Its 11 rushing touchdowns allowed and 3.53 yards per carry were both the worst marks for the program in the last decade. Opponents ran for 93 first downs; the most allowed by Alabama in any national championship season was 76.
It wasn’t just the defense. Alabama was -4 in turnover margin in three postseason games in 2018; it was +13 in the postseason from 2015-17. The team was penalized for an average of 53.1 yards per game, the second most yards in the last decade for Alabama. When the offense was forced to go for it on fourth down it posted a lower conversion rate than any of the 10 prior seasons.
“To me, we kind of have the ‘Alabama Factor’ around here that has always helped us be successful,” Saban said in February. “That’s having a team that plays with a lot of discipline, a team that everybody is sort of responsible and accountable to do their job at a high level and standard, and everybody puts the team first. Aight. So that’s the standard. And it’s up to the individuals on the team to do that. And if I thought that we weren’t doing that in one game or 10 games, I’d address it with the players, and make sure that everybody was on board with those principles and values that’s helped us be successful.
“And I don’t think we played in (the national championship) game with the ‘Alabama Factor.’”
There were plenty of high points. Alabama posted back-to-back shutouts of Mississippi State and LSU in November. The offense once went two-and-a-half games without punting. The Crimson Tide won its first 12 games by at least three touchdowns.
“One game doesn’t define who you are,” Saban said after the national championship loss. “But I also told the players that sometimes we learn more when things don’t go well, when we lose. You have to learn how to lose as well as how you win. And there’s a lot of lessons for us to learn from the experience that we had in this game, whether you’re a senior who’s leaving or whether you’re a player who’s coming back and you see that we have work to do.”
‘A main focus’
That’s helped set the message for early 2019. Saban first used the phrase “Alabama Factor” publicly at National Signing Day in February, then repeated it when Alabama started spring practice.
“I didn’t hear it as much last year but I hear it a lot now,” safety Xavier McKinney said.
Offensive lineman Jedrick Wills said he hears the phrase “every day” this spring. It’s a priority for the program during practice, but also when the team isn’t on the field. Wills said the “Alabama Factor” comes into play with how players handle discipline themselves in the classroom and in the community as well.
“Just don’t want to create any bad habits like we did last year,” he said. “… I heard about it when I got here, before I got here as a recruit, and then right now it’s a main focus.”
It’ll take time to see if the emphasis pays off. The program is gearing up for another championship run, which means the challenges will only grow as spring turns to the season.
The Process remains the same. The goals haven’t changed. Finding the “Alabama Factor” may be the difference.
“We’ve always been a team that plays with a tremendous amount of discipline, had a lot of responsible and accountable guys who could go out there and do their job and be dependable,” Saban said. “And everybody’s always put the team first. The result of that has been we’ve been able to win a lot of games, guys have got a lot of individual accolades, got a lot of opportunities to play at the next level, and we’ve been able to win a few championships. I think it’s important to re-establish that.”
Reach Ben Jones at email@example.com or 205-722-0196.