TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban slowly brushed his hair back after one botched play. He slammed his headset to the ground after another. He threw his hands up and looked dejected throughout the game.
Alabama survived Arkansas on Saturday, 14-13, and the mistakes keep piling up for the Crimson Tide, which lost to Ole Miss two weeks ago.
But Saban insists he isn't frustrated. At least that’s what he’s saying.
“It is frus-tra-ting that we make these mistakes,” Saban said on Monday, carefully drawing out every syllable.
Saban eventually erupted, of course. By now you’ve seen the video of him railing against outside expectations.
A day later and more than 600 miles away, Kevin Sumlin faced a similar situation. Sitting before a gathering of reporters, Sumlin had to answer for the way his Texas A&M Aggies sputtered out in recent weeks, first losing to Mississippi State and then losing again to Ole Miss on Saturday.
But Sumlin didn’t explode. Very calmly, he explained some his offense’s inconsistencies.
“We got whipped up front; that usually does not happen,” he said. “We challenged them and it didn’t work out.”
The team’s expectations, Sumlin said, haven’t changed.
“An old coach told me, ‘You start listening to everyone else, you ain’t never been that good and you ain’t never been that bad,’” he said. “What you try to do is keep an even keel and be honest with where you are.”
Once the No. 6-ranked team in the country, Texas A&M now comes in at No. 21.
Once the No. 1-ranked team in the coaches poll, Alabama now comes in at No. 7.
Neither team has lost the race to the playoff just yet, but both have work to do.
When the Tide host the Aggies on Saturday, only one will leave in position to make a run.
Only a few weeks ago, everyone had Alabama or Texas A&M in their projected final four. Some had both.
Now, the Tide and Aggies are on the outside looking in.
But maybe we should have never been so high on either team. Maybe what we’ve seen these past two weeks is simply a regression to the mean.
Take the quarterbacks, for instance.
Before the season, not much was thought of Kenny Hill or Blake Sims. In fact, both were expected to be beaten out by their competition: blue-chip freshman Kyle Allen at A&M and star transfer Jake Coker at Alabama. Instead, Hill became an instant Heisman Trophy contender with 511 yards and three touchdowns against South Carolina, and Sims, through Week 4, had amassed 10 touchdowns and 1,232 total yards of offense.
But after setting the world on fire through September, Hill and Sims have taken steps back.
Sims, who had completed 73.2 percent of his passes in the first four games, slipped to 55.7 percent against Ole Miss and Arkansas. Hill, who led the country in QBR through three starts, has gone from a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 13:2 to 10:6 in the past two weeks. And even those numbers are deceiving, as Hill has thrown two touchdowns and three picks in the first half, when those games were still close.
But neither coach is ready to lay the blame at their quarterback's feet.
“What happens is that attitude when you win is seen one way, and that attitude when you lose is viewed another way,” Sumlin said of Hill. “I think he’s stayed the same, the perception of him has changed.”
Both coaches agree that they have issues on their offensive lines. Neither Alabama or A&M has been good about protecting the quarterback or creating big holes for the running game.
Alabama, which has long relied on a strong line, has seen its offensive output crater as a result of poor play up front. The Tide have the most yards after contact in the SEC (900), but the flip side is they have also have the third-fewest yards before contact (402).
“I don’t know if it’s better defenses or we’re lackadaisical,” said Alabama tackle Austin Shepherd, “but we have to fix it.”
It’s not just the quarterbacks or the offensive lines that are easy to blame.
For Alabama, special teams continue to lose the field position battle and fumble away the football. Meanwhile, Texas A&M’s defense continues to struggle, giving up the most yards per play in the SEC (6.79).
Saturday represents a chance to rewrite the narrative. However, only one team will be able to do it.
“We just have to stick to our technique, buy into what the coaches are saying and we'll be good,” said Tide running back T.J. Yeldon. “[The offensive line is] doing the right techniques, so we just have to keep practicing there. So we'll get better this week.”
Said Aggies receiver Malcome Kennedy: “Two losses like that, that's a reality check. You don't want to [lose]; it sucks. But when it happens, you have to learn from it. You can't just throw it out the window."
There’s plenty to learn from for both Alabama and A&M. Mistakes can be corrected. Whoever does the best job of that could come out of Saturday's game with new life.
“Coming into this thing, nobody said this was going to be easy,” Sumlin said. “This is a difficult league. There’s no doubt that based on the last two weeks ... we’ve got to play better.”