Nick Saban, Alabama face 'test of humility' amid 'bump in the road'

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban, his Alabama football team ranked outside the top 10 of the Associated Press poll for the first time since 2015, is as realistic as he is resolute.

Even after six national championships, Saban understands the restlessness that surrounds his program. It goes with the territory when you build the kind of dynasty he has in the SEC, one that some in the college football world suggest could be crumbling.

"The standard here doesn't change, but this is also a test of your humility," Saban told ESPN on Thursday. "You say, 'Hey, I don't care what anybody says. I know what the expectations are.' But, I mean, how many people have been able to go 16 years and not have a bump in the road?"

No. 13 Alabama (2-1) faces No. 15 Ole Miss at home Saturday. That's after the Crimson Tide slopped its way last week to a 17-3 win over South Florida, which went 1-11 a year ago and gave up 41 points to Western Kentucky in its 2023 season opener.

Two weeks ago, Texas came to Bryant-Denny Stadium and won 34-24 -- the first double-digit home loss by a Saban-coached Alabama team.

"We'll respond. We've got a better team than the way we played last week," Saban said. "I don't know if we've got a good enough team to beat Ole Miss or anybody else we play, but we've got a better team than we played last week. Texas has a damn good team, probably one of the best five teams in the country and we were ahead of them in the fourth quarter.

"I like this team. I like this group. They've worked hard. They've got a good attitude about things. We just got to execute better and pay better attention to detail, and we've got some areas on our team that need to play better."

"Look, my pride in my performance and the standard that I have and what the product we're putting on the field is not what I want it to be. ... I'm not going to get mad about it. I'm not frustrated about it. I just want to do better for our team and our players." Nick Saban, Alabama coach

Several former players who won national titles under Saban have taken to social media to criticize the play of this Alabama team, which has played three different quarterbacks, allowed 12 sacks in three games, managed just 107 rushing yards in the loss to Texas and gave up 454 yards on defense to the Longhorns.

"Look, my pride in my performance and the standard that I have and what the product we're putting on the field is not what I want it to be," Saban said. "I don't need anybody else to tell me, and that's the disappointment to me. But I'm trying to channel those feelings in a direction that's going to help us get better.

"I'm not going to get mad about it. I'm not frustrated about it. I just want to do better for our team and our players."

After winning the third of his six national championships at Alabama in 2012, a common theme from Saban and his players was that when you create that beast, you've got to keep feeding it.

And yet, Saban has been a master at getting his teams to play without any anxiety creeping in despite overwhelming pressure to win at an elite level every season. A year ago, he sensed that might have been a problem.

"I thought this year's team was a little better that way, but I don't know how all this noise will affect them," Saban said. "I just want to channel any disappointments they have in the right direction."

He's used Michael Jordan's Hall of Fame speech as an example to his team when Jordan flew out the high school teammate who beat him out for the last spot on the varsity team as a sophomore and called out the coach who didn't give Jordan a spot on the varsity team.

"Michael Jordan said, 'These people directed my feelings my whole career to motivate me to try to be the best player I could be,'" Saban recounted. "So he was really thanking them. That's what I want these guys to do: Direct their feelings in the right way so they can play better and not get all frustrated and pissed off.

"I told them, 'Don't let this impact you in a negative way or put pressure on you like you've got to prove something."

With Alabama having won 10 or more games in each of the past 15 seasons under Saban, certainly nobody in college football is feeling sorry for the Crimson Tide after their shaky start to the 2023 season.

"And they shouldn't be, because I can assure you we're not feeling sorry for ourselves," said Saban, whose Alabama teams have never gone more than two seasons without winning a national championship.

But this was always going to be a different type of challenge for Saban, who will turn 72 in October. The Tide were breaking in a new quarterback after Bryce Young, Mac Jones, Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts -- all current starters in the NFL -- took every meaningful snap at quarterback for Alabama going back to the 2016 season.

"It's not just the quarterback," Saban said. "We've had a lot of different assistant coaches, coordinators and others coming and going, but that's part of it. The nature of the beast has changed, too, with the transfer portal. Other people get better quicker, and it also cuts into your depth.

"So it's a little bit different than sort of building and recruiting and developing players. It's all changed, which is why you have to keep changing and evolving."

The Ole Miss game on Saturday will be the first of five straight SEC games in five weeks for the Crimson Tide. Jalen Milroe moves back into the starting role at quarterback, and Saban said Ty Simpson would be the backup.

Saban said the reason he played both Simpson and Tyler Buchner against South Florida is that he had promised the three quarterbacks he would give them all chances in games. He said Milroe was initially frustrated when told Buchner and Simpson would play against USF, but that Saban was impressed with the way Milroe supported his teammates while not playing.

"That was it. Nothing else," Saban said. "I've got confidence in Jalen. I believe in him. The one thing that we've always talked about is you make enough good plays, but you've got to eliminate the devastating plays, the ones that are killers. It happened twice in the Texas game, but I think he's learned from it."

Milroe had two interceptions against Texas that led to 10 points. In last season's start against Texas A&M while filling in for the injured Young, Milroe turned the ball over three times.

"In the end, I think all of it will be helpful to Jalen, and we've got to play better around him and put him in positions to do what he does best," Saban said. "I've been pleased with the way he's responded."

Saban said getting back sophomore guard Tyler Booker, who missed last week's game with back spasms, would help the entire offense.

"If anybody's feeling angry or feeling disrespected, this is the time to do something about it -- channel it onto the field and in the right way," Saban said. "That's the way I want to see us play."