What to make of one-loss Alabama ahead of pivotal stretch

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — A month ago, a nearly empty Bryant-Denny Stadium felt like a ghost town as the clock ticked toward midnight. The only sound was the whir of gas-powered blowers pushing trash into piles for pickup. While Texas celebrated becoming playoff contenders inside the visitor’s locker room, it appeared the sun had set early on Alabama’s season. Kiss the seemingly annual trip to the national championship game goodbye. Those travel reservations might as well have gone in the refuse bin alongside empty shots of whiskey and shattered gas station sunglasses.

A week later, an ugly 17-3 win at South Florida seemed to signal something even more damning: the decline of the dynasty under Nick Saban, which had dominated college football with six championships since 2009. The offense, which had in recent years evolved into one of the best in football with star quarterbacks and receivers, reverted to a shell of its former self. Quarterback Jalen Milroe, the heir apparent to No. 1 draft pick Bryce Young, was benched; his replacements, Tyler Buchner and Ty Simpson, yielded the worst combined QBR of the Saban era. Saban stood on a water cooler in Tampa and preached positivity while the sky was falling around him.

Numerous former players took to social media during and after the game to question how it had gotten so bad, so quickly. And those who resisted the urge to post were no less distraught. A former offensive player focused on the line’s struggles to help the running game and protect the quarterback; “It’s a perfect storm,” he said, noting that the personnel across the board was no longer elite. A former defensive player went big-picture, wondering if Saban was still a fit for the modern game given the tandem impact of the transfer portal and NIL.

The scrutiny on the Mal Moore Athletic Facility, home to the football program, was intense. But internally, questions were being asked and answered. Veteran players were taking ownership. And a formula — imperfect though it was — was taking shape that would bring about a turnaround few saw coming. It’s a turnaround reminiscent of eight years earlier when Saban famously chided the media for burying the team after an early loss to Ole Miss. His exact words were, “If it was up to you, we’re six-foot under already. We’re dead and buried and gone.” Alabama went on to win the championship.

The rush to eulogize the program came quickly after Texas and USF, and since then public acceptance of this Alabama team has been gradual. But after five-straight wins, an air of belief has taken root among players. The defense is playing as well as it has in years, especially the front seven, which has turned up the pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Meanwhile, Milroe has settled in after being named the starter — still shaky in the short-to-intermediate passing game, but incredibly effective at pushing the ball downfield.

After a closer-than-expected win at home against Arkansas on Saturday, Alabama sits at No. 11 in the AP poll ahead of back-to-back games against Tennessee and LSU — the most pivotal stretch of the season.

Each game will be a reminder of the team’s two losses last season — the enduring images of fans rushing the field in Knoxville and Baton Rouge, celebrating the downfall of a rival that had tormented them for the better part of a decade. After Tennessee won, it rubbed salt in the wound by playing Alabama favorite “Dixieland Delight” over the loudspeakers inside Neyland Stadium.

If motivation was part of the problem early in the season, it shouldn’t be on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS) when the Tide host the Vols.

AS BAD AS losing to Texas was, marking Alabama’s first double-digit loss at home since 2004, Saban didn’t see his team splintering under the pressure.

That changed against USF, though.

“This was the first game where I saw some guys a little frustrated,” Saban said at the time. “I think the frustration came maybe because we weren’t as focused as we needed to be, which is my responsibility.”

But it wasn’t his responsibility alone.

The Sunday after the game, players called a meeting to clear the air and get everyone on the same page. As junior offensive tackle JC Latham put it, it was about “holding guys accountable.”

A vocal leader who this summer called talk of the Alabama dynasty ending “extremely disrespectful,” Latham was reluctant to divulge too many details about what was said behind closed doors. But after hearing from other players in subsequent weeks, a picture of the meeting has come into focus.

The tenor wasn’t combative, more matter-of-fact as if the team leaders felt the need to hit the proverbial reset button — albeit early in the season.

“We are all capable — the whole team,” said linebacker Chris Braswell. “We’re way better than that. … We just wanted to get back to that Bama standard.”

Running back Jase McClellan echoed the importance of playing to the standard as well as finishing and being more aggressive. Multiple players spoke during the meeting. In a radio interview, cornerback Terrion Arnold singled out Latham, Milroe, linebacker Dallas Turner and cornerback Kool-Aid McKinstry. Arnold said it had gotten to the point where they needed to get things “off their chest.”

“You call yourself a family, a brotherhood,” Arnold said. “When we have those type of meetings … if you don’t feel like you can say it to your brother, you’re not a real brother.”

Defensive tackle Tim Smith agreed that it wasn’t a lack of knowledge or ability holding the team back. Rather, he said, the message that stood out was, “We need to have the focus to execute.”

“Everyone understood that [the meeting] was needed and very much necessary,” Smith said. “There wasn’t any complaining like, ‘Aw, why do we have to meet as a team?’ We’re a brotherhood and everybody is trying to be on the same page.

“But a lot of guys took accountability in what was said throughout the meeting, so I think it was a pretty good one.”

Milroe said he sensed a change after beating then-No. 15 Ole Miss by two touchdowns. The Rebs’ 10 points in the game were the fewest they’d scored against an SEC opponent during coach Lane Kiffin’s tenure.

“We do have our swagger back,” Milroe said, “but we do have to acknowledge that we’ve got a lot of work to do.

“But I will say this: that we are hungry to improve and we’re excited for what the future holds.”

Kiffin came away a believer — not that he wasn’t before. The way Alabama fought back from down 7-6 at halftime and pulled away in the second half, Kiffin said, was as simple as the Tide having great players that “you can only keep … down so long.”

Kiffin went on to say he doesn’t like playing the Crimson Tide after they have had a bad game. He called his former boss the “best in the world” at motivating players after a setback.

“He does a great job of getting them back and using what everybody says — all you guys saying the dynasty’s over and they aren’t any good anymore,” he said. “He uses that all week and the guys come out playing really well.”

Whether Saban pushed all the right buttons or players pushed themselves coming out of that players-only meeting, the Tide have been a different team. After beating Ole Miss, they took care of business at Mississippi State, 40-17, and then went on the road to Texas A&M and came back from down a touchdown in the second half to win, 26-20.

Afterward, Saban lauded his team’s poise late in the game — which is not something he could have said the first three weeks of the season. He said he “couldn’t be more proud” of the way they competed.

“For guys to pull themselves up, to overcome adversity and [show] resiliency, this is a great win for our team. … It was an opportunity for this team to sort of show who they are in terms of what kind of team we have, and I think we can have a really, really good team.”

SABAN TRIED TO warn everyone. Before the offensive train wreck at USF — 5 of 15 third downs converted, 4.7 yards per pass, one total touchdown — he harkened back to the team’s offensive struggles in the 2015 season when Jake Coker and Cooper Bateman competed for the starting quarterback job.

“We were sort of struggling on offense, couldn’t find an identity, eventually found an identity and had a really good season,” Saban recalled. “So you keep searching.”

At the time, the comparison seemed like a stretch. For one, Milroe appeared more turnover prone than Coker, and for another, he didn’t have the same caliber line Coker did (see: future pros Cam Robinson and Ryan Kelly). But most importantly, the No. 2 Milroe was handing the ball off to was Jase McClellan, not Derrick Henry. No disrespect to McClellan, who is a solid player, but Henry won the Heisman Trophy that season.

So maybe there was some wishful thinking on Saban’s part. But at least one person saw where he was coming from: Coker. Like this season, Coker was reminded of the nine starters they replaced in 2015 and the early issues that caused. Like this season, Coker was reminded of his own struggles while competing for the starting job — the feeling of looking over your shoulder.

Coker recalled the Sunday night when, after watching film of the loss to Ole Miss and his two interceptions, then-offensive coordinator Kiffin told him he needed to go see Saban. Coker was too angry to be scared about getting called to Saban’s office without a reason.

After the two shared their thoughts on the team, Coker said Saban told him he was the starter and, “You need to make this thing work.”

“I said, ‘Let’s do it,'” he recalled. “I was excited. It was a way to just move forward. It was a freeing feeling knowing that I wasn’t going to get pulled.”

And that feeling extended throughout the team.

“It’s like a judge throwing the gavel down,” Coker said of Saban’s decision, “it’s over with and everybody falls in line and believes that’s the guy.”

Alabama came out the following week and throttled Louisiana-Monroe 34-0. Then came the big test: at No. 8 Georgia.

Coker smiled on the far end of the field in Athens when a pre-game scuffle broke out. “Oh, hell yes,” he thought. “Thank you. You don’t know what you just did.”

Provided ample motivation, Alabama dominated Georgia, 38-10.

“The Georgia game is when the tone was set that ‘OK, we’re back,'” he said. “I don’t think anybody really cared about the rankings whatsoever. I think we knew we’d be there if we just took care of business.”

Maybe it’s not an apple-to-apples comparison, but Coker sees another through-line between 2015 and this season. Just as Georgia’s smack-talk lit a fire under his teammates, he thinks Kiffin’s suggestion that Kevin Steele wasn’t actually calling the defense woke up this year’s squad.

“I know it bothered the team, but I guarantee you it really bothered the coaching staff a lot,” Coker said. “I got a feeling that week of practice they were absolutely just dialed in — if you screwed anything up, you were getting just torn apart.”

Alabama’s defense, which had regressed the last few years, is looking like its old self again, ranking 12th in scoring (16 points per game), third in sacks (26) and eighth in disrupted dropbacks (54).

The offense might not be great yet, but it’s been good enough. Milroe, who said he’s getting better every week, has established himself as a big-play threat. Roughly one-fourth of his pass attempts have traveled 20 or more yards through the air; his 19 such completions rank third nationally. Since getting benched against USF, he’s scored nine touchdowns (six passing, three rushing) and turned the ball over twice.

“It kind of felt like we weren’t there in the beginning of the year, but we’re finally getting that confidence and understanding of how to play together and really how to be just malicious on both sides of the ball,” Coker said.

TO BE CLEAR: Alabama’s still far from perfect.

Just look at Saturday’s 24-21 win over Arkansas. The Crimson Tide sleep-walked through the 11 a.m. kickoff, struggling to run the ball, struggling to stop the run, struggling to do the simple things, like get the timing down on the center-quarterback exchange. By the time they woke up, they were down 6-0. And no sooner than they rattled off 24 unanswered points to take complete control of the game, they let their foot off the gas and gave up back-to-back Razorback touchdowns to make it a one-score game late.

Afterward, an agitated Saban drew a distinction between winning the game and beating the other team. While he said he was happy with the progress the team had made from the start of the season, he wasn’t pleased with a lack of execution and discipline. A face mask penalty by safety Jaylen Key felt symbolic — in a bad way. It was an instance of a player, he said, “putting himself ahead of what’s best for the team and putting yourself in harm’s way of having a chance to win.”

Could they learn from a close call? Saban said noncommittally, “I hope so.”

Offensive lineman Tyler Booker wasn’t pleased with the team’s lack of consistency. What it comes down to, he said, was them losing intensity in the second half and not finishing.

“When you lose attention to detail,” he explained, “you don’t execute as often.”

Reminded of the similarity in tone to the USF win and the reaction it caused, Booker acknowledged a “common theme” because they “shouldn’t have been in that kind of game” in the first place. Against Arkansas, he said, “We let them back in the game.”

“We have to put teams out,” he said.

But Booker wasn’t hitting the panic button yet. Overall, he felt the team was heading in the right direction in recent weeks. The talent’s there. There are flashes of a team that can find a way in a down SEC to make it to Atlanta and play for a conference championship.

If they can compete for 60 minutes, Booker said, “That’s how we get to playing Alabama football.”

“And that’s dominating,” he added.

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