TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It can finally begin. The wait is over and the Crimson Tide can finally utter three little letters that cause the ground to shake around these parts.
“We can all talk about LSU now,” Alabama wide receiver Darius Hanks said while sporting an ear-to-ear smile.
“I’m looking forward to it. Lot of talk about LSU.”
The distraction that is LSU might have come close to being the undoing of this team in a lazy, unorthodox first half that saw just six points next to Alabama’s name on the scoreboard.
Thanks to a Nick Saban halftime speech in which Hanks said Saban “jumped our butts,” the energy level rose to the degree that the 101,821 in attendance expected and Alabama rolled right over Tennessee for the 37-6 victory.
Hanks didn’t think that the team was necessarily looking two weeks ahead -- though players were huddled around watching LSU’s win over Auburn before the game -- and attributed Alabama’s sluggish start to arrogance more than anything.
“I think that guys thought that Tennessee was going to come out tonight and lay down and let us get a victory very easy, which they didn’t,” he said.
“It was nothing that Tennessee did. It was all us. The game was on our back the whole game.”
There was an uneasiness circulating throughout the stadium at halftime. Fundamentally, players agreed that they were fine. Though there were some uncharacteristic mistakes, like missed blocks and tackles, the players felt what really kept them back was the team’s attitude. The focus wasn’t there in the first half.
Saban said he worried about a lackluster start well before game. With all the hype surrounding the Nov. 5 showdown with LSU, he feared during the week that talk would trickle into his locker room. He cringed when he heard the word “LSU” and wished he could have hid his players from the outside world until after Saturday.
What he saw during the first 30 minutes was what he expected. Alabama managed just six first downs, rushed for 35 yards, allowed 61 rushing yards after it gave up just 84 total rushing yards in its first three SEC games. It didn’t play sound football. AJ McCarron floated passes and both lines were pushed around by Tennessee.
"The biggest lesson is we’re a really average team when we don’t play to the standard of excellence that we set for ourselves and that’s what happened tonight," offensive lineman Barrett Jones said. "We came out and we didn’t execute and that made us average."
Then, the second half came. The junior varsity squad hit the showers and the grownups showed up.
Tennessee’s offense crumbled as it failed to gain a first down and totaled just 41 yards in the second half. Alabama lit up the Vols with big hits and overwhelmed Tennessee’s offensive line with blitz after blitz.
Offensively, Alabama came out throwing. With so many Vols in the box, McCarron lit up the Vols, completing his first eight passes of the second half and grabbing two touchdowns (one rushing, one passing). With the air attack flourishing, Trent Richardson and the ground game wore down the Vols as the Tide scored 31 straight points.
“The biggest thing is the players responded with a whole different energy level, passion, enthusiasm in the second half, which made all the difference in the world,” Saban said. “As we talked about before, when we don’t have that we become very average and when we have it, we can be pretty good.”
The traditional victory cigar smell seeped into the press box with more than 10 minutes left in the fourth and the “LSU” chants, which were egged on by Alabama players, echoed throughout Bryant-Denny Stadium with about 2:36 left.
Saban said that with the bye week upcoming, LSU preparation will begin later in the week, but his players expect it to start up sooner. First, Saban wants to get back to improving on fundamentals and get healthy before they can talk Tigers.
Regardless, Saban said quality control will be the most important thing with his team. The LSU talk is only going to increase and become more deafening, and Saban doesn’t want that to consume his players.
“I’m sure there will be a lot of hype about this game, but I think everybody needs to chill out, mentally physically and every other way for a few days,” he said. “Then we’ll have plenty of time to get ready for that game.”