Sloppy Alabama gets wake-up call before playoff push

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- For seven and a half minutes, the scoreboard in Bryant-Denny Stadium looked like a mirage.

Alabama was losing? That couldn’t be true. Not the No. 1 team in the country. Not to an FCS team, Chattanooga.

But the Mocs did in fact hold a brief 3-0 lead over the undefeated Crimson Tide. Nothing was going right. Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts fumbled for the seventh time this season, and star linebacker Reuben Foster found himself in the locker room dealing with an injured hand. It was the first time Alabama had trailed in a game since nearly a month ago against Texas A&M.

Nick Saban wasn’t pleased. If anything gets the 65-year-old head coach’s blood boiling, it’s playing down to competition, and on a chilly Saturday night against a heavy underdog, that’s exactly what his team did.

A 47-yard touchdown pass from Hurts to Calvin Ridley gave Alabama the lead in the second quarter, and the Tide pulled away from there to win 31-3. But there was no mistaking a lack of execution, and perhaps focus, from the home team.

After gaining a 7-3 lead, Alabama found itself on the Chattanooga 1-yard line with what should have been an easy opportunity to punch the ball into the end zone. But on second-and-goal, Hurts was upended for no gain. Damien Harris took a turn carrying the football and was stuffed as well. Hurts rolled right on fourth down and found Gehrig Dieter for a touchdown, but the point was proven: This was going to be an off night for the Tide.

During a halftime interview, Saban was clearly upset and said he was “embarrassed.”

“I don’t think we played very well on offense,” he said. “We are getting rid of the ball slow, we aren’t pass-protecting well, and we aren’t running the ball with any consistency. Defensively, we haven’t stopped them like we should. We have to play better. We just aren’t playing very well.”

If Alabama wasn’t focused on Chattanooga, that was understandable. The SEC West title was already in hand, and the Iron Bowl was a week away. Looking ahead would have been a perfectly human response.

But human nature has no business in Saban’s beloved process. There’s no room for letdowns and no time to look at standings, rankings or scoreboards. A sloppy performance against Chattanooga will surely mean a grueling practice Monday.

Maybe that’s exactly what Alabama (11-0) needed. After weeks of hearing how it was a shoo-in for the top seed in the College Football Playoff, maybe a wake-up call was in order. If anything, Saturday night reminded us that during a season in which Alabama appears to have no equal, there’s no accounting for complacency.

With the regular season already sewn up and Alabama projected to be a 21-point favorite against Florida in the SEC championship game, the only thing that threatens to derail the No. 1 team in the country is that team itself.

The Chattanooga game represented either a crack in the foundation or a blip on the radar. The difference could lead to a championship season or a late-season letdown.