TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban roamed the sideline like a lion stalking a wildebeest. He looked furious. His defense had just given up a touchdown. Now his offense couldn't run the play quite perfectly. So he fumed. Alabama led Mississippi State, which had entered Saturday unbeaten and ranked No. 11 in the BCS standings, by a score of 38-7. The Crimson Tide offense, composed entirely of backups, was taking a knee to run out the clock.
Before anyone could even ask him afterward, Saban brought up his late-game displeasure. "I know everybody's probably going to say, 'Well, you got upset with the backup players.' I got upset with the backup players because they're better than that," Saban said. "They know they're better than that. They need to play with poise and confidence when they go in the game and compete just like everybody else competes. That's about being able to execute and do your job. It's not about shutting anybody out. It's not about any of that. We're trying to get our players to play their best in every regard."
Welcome to Alabama, where even the blowouts aren't good enough.
The Crimson Tide are No. 1 because Saban and his players demand nothing but each player's best on every play in every game, in every play at every practice and in every rep of every lifting session. Every program wants to achieve that level of accountability, but few can because the underlying attitude runs counter to human nature. Most people are inclined to relax with a lead, to let things slide when most facets of the job are going well. Alabama players aren't allowed to do that. Of the rest, Oregon also seems to have this attitude, and Kansas State and Notre Dame seem close to achieving it.
Alabama seems close to perfecting it. After demolishing a pretty good team, center Barrett Jones and the rest of the offensive line will click on video of the Mississippi State game and make a laundry list of necessary improvements that can help them next week against LSU. "We kind of hit a little lull there in the second quarter that we're not proud of," Jones said Saturday. "But other than that, we physically dominated." Perhaps they hit that lull because less than two minutes into the second quarter, they led by three touchdowns. Doesn't matter. Not good enough. Jones swears Tide players don't nitpick for the sake of finding flaws. They simply have a different definition of acceptable.
"It just depends on what your standard is," Jones is. "We're not working against other teams -- to be better than other teams. We're working against ourselves. That's how you become great, when you constantly hold yourself to a high standard and not just think, 'Well, we did better than that other guy.'"
Alabama's style is not as visually impressive as Oregon's. The Tide could probably hang 70 on teams, but they rarely do. Once Alabama gets a lead, it tries, as Saban says, to "take the air out of the ball." Playing Alabama probably feels a lot like getting run over by a bulldozer moving two miles an hour. It takes a while, it hurts like hell and eventually you end up flattened.
Saturday, Mississippi State learned what happens when a team doesn't take advantage of opportunities. Quarterback Tyler Russell, who played valiantly even though he had to haul himself off the ground more than a dozen times, marched the Bulldogs down the field on their first possession. Mississippi State needed to match after Alabama rolled down the field for a T.J. Yeldon touchdown on its first drive, and for a moment, it seemed the Bulldogs would do just that. They reached the 14-yard line, but they would go no further. They tried to kick a field goal, but Alabama's Dee Milliner blocked it.
Later, with Alabama up by 24 points, Mississippi State drove 97 yards to the Alabama one-yard line. After a play-action fake, Russell threw an interception to Alabama safety Robert Lester, who has been starting so long for the Tide that it feels as if he was recruited by Bear Bryant. Mississippi State entered Saturday leading the nation in turnover margin. Saturday, Alabama won the turnover battle 3-0. "The little things," Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen said. "All of the little things. ... All of the little things you have to do in great games, give them credit for it, we didn't do them tonight."
Alabama also does some big-picture things even better than it did last year, when it won the national title. Quarterback AJ McCarron has continued to build off an impressive BCS title game, and he has become one of the nation's best signal-callers in spite of the fact that he is not asked to carry his team. In the first quarter, McCarron threw a heavenly 57-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Bell. Later, he showed off NFL arm strength and touch with deep outs to Christion Jones and Amari Cooper. "We're starting to find out that this is not your mom's ball-control offense," Jones said. "We're really explosive. We're saying, if you want to put a lot of guys in the box and try to cover us man-to-man, we've got some receivers who can make plays and a quarterback who can get the ball to them."
That quarterback didn't even take a snap in the fourth quarter. McCarron bruised his back when he got sacked by Cameron Lawrence late in the third quarter. With a trip to Baton Rouge coming up, that could have been cause for a week of drama, but Saban clipped off any speculation. "He's fine," Saban said. "He could have gone back in the game. He could have played in the game. He should be fine for next week's game."
That next game is against LSU, and Tide players haven't forgotten the last team to beat them. In fact, Jones said the team might skip celebrating the Mississippi State win and start working on the Tigers. "We might forgo the 24-hour rule," he said.
But while Alabama will prepare for LSU's offensive and defensive schemes, the Crimson Tide will not face the Tigers. Alabama will play against its own standard. To this point, that standard has been far tougher than any human opposition.