TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — A few minutes before halftime at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday, maintenance workers stormed the press box restrooms here like FBI agents. They pounded on the doors with walkie-talkies, asked if anyone was inside and burst in to check on the toilets.
An announcement went over the stadium public address asking fans to refrain from using the restrooms because of a water pressure issue. Soon a crowd of 100,000 found themselves crossing their legs and holding their breaths. For a few minutes late in the second quarter of No. 1 Alabama’s 33–14 victory over No. 6 Texas A&M, nothing was working.
Alabama trailed 14–13 after the first drive of the third quarter, and as the water pressured waned in the bathrooms the real pressure ratcheted up on the field. Those blips of drama may well be the last that Alabama experiences in the regular season. The Crimson Tide quickly restored order by rattling off 20 unanswered points, including their ninth defensive touchdown of the season, to close the game and flush away any memories of their early struggles.
“I was really proud of the way our players, after going down 14-13, played in the second half," Tide Coach Nick Saban said. "After we got in that position, I thought it was great competitive character on their part to persevere."
Now 8–0 through the first eight weeks of the season, Alabama has no current top 20 teams remaining on its schedule. A trip to LSU on Nov. 5 and the Iron Bowl loom as the only scary regular season games remaining.
The Crimson Tide showed on Saturday the duality of their reality. They are good enough to go 15–0 and rank as perhaps the best of all of Nick Saban’s national title teams. (This would be his fifth with the Tide, as they’ve won four of the past seven championship). But there’s also just enough hints of vulnerability—a freshman quarterback, a defense susceptible to running quarterbacks, a shaky kicker—that Alabama’s road to the national title can’t be deemed a march toward inevitability. (Safety Eddie Jackson suffering a season-ending leg fracture Saturday certainly isn't a good omen for the Tide.)
Credit Saban for being open enough to create this evolved version of Alabama. He essentially took the Tide’s kryptonite—dual-threat quarterbacks and spread offenses—and decided to inflict them on the opposition. That’s helped offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin’s offense emerge as a new-age, new-look and new tempo version of the Tide. They are led by electric but occasionally erratic freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts (164 yards passing, 93 yards rushing, three total touchdowns, two interceptions), a bevy of stout tailbacks topped by Damien Harris (17 carries for 128 yards) and a defense that forces opponents to operate in less space than a coach-class middle seat on a airplane.
Alabama’s identity still rests with that defense, whose nine touchdowns scored are twice as many as any other defense in the country. (Alabama also has 12 non-offensive touchdowns, as the Tide have three punt return scores this year). Defensive lineman Jonathan Allen darted 29 yards for a touchdown late in the third quarter to seal the game in the most fitting way. He scooped up a missed fumbled exchange between Trevor Knight and Keith Ford and sprinted to end zone for his second score of the season. Most of the time, when defensive linemen score a touchdown, they are lampooned for their lack of speed. But not Allen, who is 6’3” and 291 pounds and looked like a natural athlete sprinting down the left sideline.
However, that touchdown ranked as just Allen’s second-most impressive play of the day. In the first quarter, he ragdolled A&M guard Colton Prater, leapt over tailback Trayveon Williams and emasculated Knight with a Superman dive that turned into a sack. Allen showed the power to toss aside the 295-pound Prater, the athleticism to leap over a cutblock and then the will to pummel Knight. Allen also added four quarterback hurries on the day, as he’s emerged as the best player on the country’s best team.
"Blessed," Allen said. "That’s all I have to say. Blessed to take advantage of the opportunities I’ve been given."
So how do you beat Alabama? You can’t run up the middle on a defensive line whose entire two-deep will play in the NFL. You can’t throw over the top on a secondary that’s among the elite in college football. You can pick the perimeter a bit as A&M did with Christian Kirk on Saturday (nine catches for 58 yards, one touchdown), but that means increments of offensive perfection. That’s never simple when your tailback is running in quicksand, your quarterback is under constant duress and the defensive coverages are sponsored by Spandex. “You get no space,” says an offensive coordinator who played the Tide earlier this year. “They’re not bad at anything. They are going to stuff the run. Their defensive backs contest everything. When you throw it, you have to make the perfect throw.”
Alabama entered the game in the top 10 in scoring defense and total defense. It also entered the game in the top 10 in scoring offense. It ended the first half with more than double the yards (303–150) of Texas A&M, but the Aggies stayed in the game by exposing another of Alabama’s tiny imperfections. The Crimson Tide came into Saturday’s contest ranked No. 63 in red zone offense and only fell from there as three first-half trips into the red zone ended without a touchdown. They sputtered early, settling for field goals on their first two drives, and missed another kick in the second quarter. That allowed Texas A&M to sneak back into the game and take the lead early in the second half.
“It was a great team win for us," said tight end O.J. Howard, who caught eight passes for 69 yards. "I think our team did a great job and kept competing no matter what happened. A game full of adversity. We overcame that.”
But by the game’s end, it all felt so normal. That’s the most revealing part of Alabama’s latest evisceration of a high-end SEC foe. The 18-point line in Las Vegas that the Tide beat. The line-of-scrimmage mismatch. The special teams hits so vicious everyone in the stadium cringes. And of course, the red and white pompoms taunting the opponent, capped by the ritualistic chanting of “ROLL! TIDE!”
Dominance has become expected, like a Nick Saban scowl, houndstooth baby outfits and gameday traffic snarls. And while this team isn’t perfect, it’s becoming increasingly clear someone is going to have to play perfect to beat it.
Texas A&M inserted some drama, as one would expect from a top 10 team. But before the final whistle, Tide fans could leave early and face the day’s only real pressure—finding a working restroom.