Nick Saban's yo-yo Crimson Tide act up against Tennessee football | Toppmeyer

Blake Toppmeyer

This the "Topp Rope," a biweekly SEC football column from the USA TODAY Network's Blake Toppmeyer.

The yo-yo Tide was at it again on Saturday.

If you can’t decide what to make of Alabama football this season, that’s because the most consistent facet about Nick Saban’s team through eight games has been its inconsistency.

The final score of No. 4 Alabama’s 52-24 victory over Tennessee on Saturday suggests a comfortable joy ride. It was anything but that.

Tennessee fans and several scribes are rushing to laud the Vols (4-4, 2-3) after a 28-point defeat, a sign of how eager the Big Orange are to believe the Josh Heupel era will be better than the Jeremy Pruitt debacle that preceded it, but also a marker of how close this game was for much of the night.

The Vols led 14-7 after one quarter and trailed just 31-24 early in the fourth quarter.

The stats say this was a blowout through and through. Alabama compiled 33 first downs to UT’s 10 and enjoyed a 574-346 advantage in total yards, but Alabama’s self-inflicted wounds helped Tennessee.

A first-quarter roughing the punter penalty extended a Tennessee drive that ended in a touchdown. Later, Alabama had a punt blocked to set up a Vols field goal. How many times during Saban’s dynasty could you say Alabama got whipped in special teams?

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A fumble inside the red zone halted one Alabama drive, while another nearly ended in disaster as quarterback Bryce Young fumbled while lunging for the goal line. Officials determined that Young recovered his fumble in the end zone.

Alabama’s offense vanished in the middle eight (the last four minutes of the first half, plus the first four minutes of the second half), a period of the game that coaches consider vital.

And the secondary breakdowns that had a hand in Alabama’s 41-38 loss to Texas A&M flared up again.

“Just some things that we shot ourselves in the foot, and I think those things really need to get corrected or they’re going to cost us at some point,” Saban said.

On its best day, Alabama (7-1, 4-1) might good enough to beat No. 1 Georgia (7-0, 5-0) in a potential SEC Championship matchup. But Saturday offered another reminder that Georgia has been the more consistently dominant team.

Critical SEC West game on tap

A pivotal SEC West clash will occur between Ole Miss (6-1, 3-1) and Auburn (5-2, 2-1) on Saturday (6 p.m. CT, ESPN) on The Plains.

The easy assumption is that Alabama will represent the SEC West in Atlanta, but that’s far from settled.

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Alabama, Auburn and Ole Miss each have one conference loss. Alabama enjoys the tiebreaker over Ole Miss after a 42-21 victory earlier this month, and the Crimson Tide and AU will meet in the Iron Bowl on Thanksgiving weekend.

If Alabama runs the table, it will claim the spot in Atlanta.

If Auburn runs the table, it will claim the spot in Atlanta.

Ole Miss requires help. The Rebels need to win out and combine that with Alabama stumbling against LSU, Arkansas or Auburn.

The Rebels are coming off their top all-around performance of the season – a 31-17 dismantling of LSU that wasn’t as close as the scoreboard indicated. Auburn is flying under the radar as the SEC’s most underrated team.

A three-team SEC West race will be trimmed to a two-team tussle after Saturday.

SEC West will gobble up bowl bids

Three teams in the SEC East – South Carolina (4-4), Missouri (3-4) and Vanderbilt (2-6) – face long-shot odds of earning bowl eligibility. Meanwhile, the SEC West could go 7-for-7 in securing bowl bids.

Alabama, Ole Miss and Texas A&M (6-2, 3-2) are bowl eligible, and Auburn should have no trouble finding at least one more victory to gain eligibility.

Mississippi State (4-3, 2-2) thumped Vanderbilt 45-6 on Saturday to improve its chances for a 12th consecutive bowl bid. The Bulldogs need to beat Tennessee State in November and secure at least one victory from a quartet of games against Kentucky, Arkansas, Auburn and Ole Miss.

Arkansas (5-3, 1-3) must beat Mississippi State, LSU, Alabama or Missouri to earn eligibility.

LSU (4-4, 2-3) will play Louisiana-Monroe in November, but getting to six wins could be tricky. Its other remaining opponents are Alabama, Arkansas and Texas A&M.

He said it

"I think he had a bloody everything." – South Carolina coach Shane Beamer, on quarterback Zeb Noland suffering a bloody nose, lip and sore upper body amid a 44-14 loss to Texas A&M

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.