TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The surest sign that this isn't the same Alabama team that marched to the past two national titles came on the first play of the fourth quarter of Saturday's game against Ole Miss. The Crimson Tide faced third-and-three from their own 38-yard line, and as quarterback AJ McCarron awaited the snap, tailback Kenyan Drake went in motion and settled along the line of scrimmage. With a lead to protect, needing nine feet for a first down, Alabama emptied the backfield and told the Rebels' defense that a pass was coming. That pass was intercepted.
The Crimson Tide of the past two years would not have abandoned the run in such a situation. The ball would have been snapped, the line would have surged forward and a back would have traversed the required distance for a first down. The clock would have ticked, and the opponent would have inched ever closer to defeat. What made this choice so odd is that in the rest of Saturday's second half, Alabama played the style that has defined the Nick Saban era. The defense suffocated Ole Miss. The offense -- after rushing 15 times for 36 yards in the first half -- ran 25 times for 218 yards. Alabama won 25-0. That score would have looked quite at home in the 2011 or 2012 national title seasons, but this one somehow felt different.
Maybe it felt different because we know the SEC has changed. Alabama's 49-42 win over Texas A&M on Sept. 14 suggested as much, and Georgia's 44-41 win over LSU on Saturday drove that point home. Thanks to a conference-wide talent drain on defense and the development of some excellent quarterbacks, the team that allows the fewest yards may not win the league. The team that makes the most explosive offensive plays could very likely win it. So far, only Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel has been able to make such plays against Alabama's defense with any regularity -- and he does that to everyone -- but LSU's offense looks capable of challenging the Tide defense. So does Georgia's, should Alabama see the Bulldogs in Atlanta for a second consecutive season.
Maybe Saturday felt different because we know it probably shouldn't have been a shutout. Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze elected to go for fourth downs deep in Alabama territory three times, and the Rebels failed each time. Had they converted, the score might have been 16-9 in the fourth quarter, and an odd bounce or a mental mistake by an Alabama player might have given Ole Miss a chance. But let's not be too hard on Freeze. The first decision to go for it came in the first quarter of a scoreless game. A field goal attempt would have been challenging, and had receiver Laquon Treadwell not been flipped by a crushing hit from Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, the ball would have crossed the 27-yard line and given Ole Miss a first down. As for Freeze's second-half aggressiveness on fourth down, he knew the Rebels needed touchdowns to win. He could have made the score respectable, but he wasn't playing for respectable. Unfortunately for Ole Miss, Alabama's defense looked like those national title-vintage units near the goal line. Linebacker C.J. Mosley always had the Tide in the correct alignment, and the python squeezed harder just when it seemed Ole Miss might find some room to breathe. "We did not have answers to the stuff they were doing defensively," Freeze said. "That's very frustrating and I take that pretty personal."
Maybe it felt different because this Alabama team is different. "This is a new team," said Alabama center Chad Lindsay, one of the newest of the new. "Last year's team was last year's team. We're creating a new identity."
Lindsay did not replace Barrett Jones as the starting center. Ryan Kelly did. But when Kelly injured his knee in the first half, Lindsay stepped in on a line that struggled against Virginia Tech, Colorado State and -- in Saturday's first half -- Ole Miss. Alabama went into the break up 9-0, but the Crimson Tide were lucky to have recovered three of their own fumbles and lucky that punter Cody Mandell made a great catch on a bad snap and turned a potential disaster into an excellent kick.
This is all nitpicking, though. In games such as this we tend to measure national title contenders against how we think the game would go if another national title contender were on the field. Ole Miss is not a national title contender. But the Rebels did enter Saturday averaging 490 yards and 38 points a game, and Alabama held them to 205 yards and a goose egg. Saban saw exactly one coverage bust from a unit that got tortured by Manziel and receiver Mike Evans in College Station. The improvement stemmed from the return of cornerback Deion Belue, who injured his foot against Texas A&M, and the development of freshman Eddie Jackson, who made his first career interception in the first quarter and finished with four tackles (one for loss) and two pass breakups. Jackson's night appeared over in the third quarter when he was called for targeting Ole Miss receiver Evan Engram, but a review by officials determined Jackson had not targeted Engram's head. (Jackson probably was lucky; the ball had already passed Engram, leaving him defenseless. Jackson did not launch himself, but he made contact with Engram's head as Engram fell back to earth.)
The offensive linemen began to look more like their predecessors as well. On the second play of the second half, left guard Arie Kouandjio drove a defensive tackle out of the A gap, Lindsay sealed a linebacker and tailback T.J. Yeldon spun away from a safety and scampered for a 68-yard touchdown to stretch Alabama's lead to 16-0. With the exception of that curious third-and-three, the Crimson Tide kept the ball on the ground, dominated time of possession and pounded the Rebels into submission. For a half, the Crimson Tide hearkened back to a time when the SEC's Game of the Year of the Decade of the Century of the Millenium ended in overtime with a 9-6 score. But those days are probably over, and when Alabama next meets a team that fancies itself the Crimson Tide's peer -- most likely LSU on Nov. 9 -- it will have to prove it can play the current style as well.
Saban knows this team isn't as close to perfect as his other teams were. "If there's any criticism of myself, our staff and our team, it would be the fact that we are not as consistent as we would like to be in terms of how we execute," Saban said. "Competitive spirit? Great. Respond to tough circumstances? Great. But discipline and execution to do the little things right so that we eliminate some of the negative plays? That's going to be critical for us to continue to improve."
Nights such as Saturday, while possibly revealing a few flaws, also help explain why Alabama has won three of the past four national titles. The Crimson Tide skunked a pretty good team, yet the complaints came easy. "I'm looking more at the standard, not the record," Saban said. "It's important that our players do the same."