Despite Sloppy Victory, Key Pieces Falling into Place for Crimson Tide

Courtesy Alabama Athletics
Christopher Walsh

COLLEGE STATION, Tex. — It wasn’t lost on Nick Saban on where he was doing his postgame press conference Saturday evening.

The Alabama coach was in the same exact place where two years ago he went off in the media for propping up his players and telling them how good they were before surviving a scare at Kyle Field.

“This very seat is where rat poison was born,” the coach said as the gathered reporters chuckled (he did too). “I remember that …

“When I hear things in the media about whether a guy is a first-round draft pick, they’re set to break records, that kind of thing, that’s not really what I want our players to be focusing on. You have to be focusing on right now.”

Although No. 1 Alabama handily won its first game of the season against a ranked opponent, 47-28 over Texas A&M (and in a tough environment as well), he doesn’t have to worry about that too much with this team. 

The Crimson Tide may have won going away, but its overall performance was pretty sloppy. 

Officials threw 11 flags, with junior wide receiver DeVonta Smith ejected for throwing a punch. Junior quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s first interception was in the end zone, and Alabama scored just two touchdowns during five red-zone trips. 

The defense starting four-plus true freshmen, depending on the formation, gave up 389 yards and three long touchdown drives.

This team hasn’t clicked yet. It’s not close to doing so.

Nevertheless, we can now finally start calling Alabama a real contender for the national championship.

You’re probably saying, ‘Well, duh,” but it’s one thing to think that a team is going to be in the running and quite another to actually know so because it’s proven something on the field.

Offensively, Alabama is the most dangerous team in college football. It’s led by the player who finished second for the 2018 Heisman Trophy, throwing to arguably the best receiving group anyone’s ever seen.

Not even two of Saban's best former assistant coaches could figure out a way to slow them down. 

“They have erasers,” Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher said. “I call them erasers. I mean, no matter what you do — throw it short, throw it long, long situation — guys that can erase yards. You've got a guy there defensively and you make a tackle, well, that's good on the board, but they make you miss. And that's what great players do.”

Thus, the four passing touchdowns against a pretty good defense, and there should have been more.

The polls may have already had the Crimson Tide at No. 1, it really hadn’t earned the status. Clemson didn’t either as it hadn’t looked like a complete team either, and the same could be said for No. 3 Georgia before it lost at home to South Carolina on Saturday.

Najee Harris at Texas A&M
Najee Harris had 114 rushing yards and caught a 16-yard touchdown. Alabama Athletics

Other rising teams have bigger wins, against better opponents, which might lead the selection committee to place them over Alabama when the initial College Football Playoff rankings come out in a couple of weeks.

Similarly, Tagovailoa may not be the frontrunner for the Heisman soon, regardless of the numbers he posts over the next couple of weeks against Tennessee and Arkansas.

But November is the crucial month for both the national championship picture and the Heisman chase. Anything before then is like trying to guess which characters are going to get bumped off in a TV show or movie next year.

Despite that, this wasn’t just a big game for Alabama but a benchmark for the Crimson Tide, (6-0), and not just because Texas A&M had already faced reigning national champion Clemson.

Alabama went on the road, found both its running game and pass rush, and showed why the previous five opponents were smart to kick away from the Crimson Tide’s returners.

It might have finally found its starting five on the offensive line. The defense is becoming tougher to run against. With redshirt junior linebacker Terrell Lewis (knee) able to practice all week for the first time this season, the outside linebackers could be the best tandem in college football.

It's discovering the difference between sort of feeling its way through games and finding ways to get points on the board.

Overall, important pieces are starting to fall in place on a team that can still dramatically improve. Should Saban manage to have it peak at the right time, the opponent may not matter. 

That's always been the goal for the Crimson Tide under his direction.

The thing about the 2017 “rat poison” game was that things did eventually catch up to Alabama, which lost at Auburn. The Crimson Tide made the most of a second chance and went on to win the national championship.

Last year, Alabama didn’t get the wake-up call until it was too late, and regressed down the stretch. It took Clemson to exploit it in the title game. 

How well Alabama progresses from here will determine if it can avoid a similar fate.