<
>

Nick Saban, Alabama again show they can't be counted out

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- The midpoint of the season is no place to make any iron-clad (or crimson-clad) declarations in college football.

But if history is any indication, Nick Saban has his doubters right where he wants them following Alabama's 26-20 victory over Texas A&M at raucous Kyle Field on Saturday.

It was only a month ago that we heard some of the same warnings we've heard before when Saban and the Tide have lost, which has happened only six times in his last 50 games -- with five of those defeats coming to teams ranked in the top 15 nationally.

Immediately after the 34-24 home loss to Texas in Week 2, the familiar alarms went off: that the dynasty might be dead, that some cracks in the foundation might be forming, that while Saban might not have completely lost his fastball, he surely had lost some velocity.

But here we are, six games into the season, and the Crimson Tide are sitting atop the SEC West as the only unbeaten team in league play.

"I like this team. I like the way this team practices, the way these kids want to practice and want to compete. It's a good group of kids," Saban told ESPN earlier this month. "We've just got to execute better and pay more attention to detail, and we've got some areas on our team that need to play better. We're going to keep working with them to get there because this team has everything it takes to be really, really good."

At no point has Saban suggested this can be a great team. Of course, he didn't say that about the 2020 unbeaten national championship squad or any of his other teams, either. That's just not his style.

But with a manageable path ahead to the SEC championship game (the next three games, against Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU, are all at home), Alabama is alive and well despite its warts.

And while this might not be Saban's most talented, most complete or deepest team, it might be the most fulfilling one he's had if it is able to get to Atlanta and, at the very least, play for an SEC title.

But all that, in Saban vernacular, is nothing but noise, something his players repeated over and over following the win over the Aggies.

"From this point forward, we're just going to keep working and keep trying to improve and block out the outside noise because the only people that can make any game a big game are the fans and the media, because it's not the players," said receiver Jermaine Burton, who torched A&M with nine catches for 197 yards and two touchdowns.

Burton's emergence on offense has been complemented by a defense that has allowed just five touchdowns in four games since the Texas loss and is starting to look like some of the disruptive units that were the cornerstones of Saban's championship teams. There might not be as many first- and second-round NFL draft picks on this defense as in past years, but Bama is tied for third nationally in sacks (22), tied for third in the SEC in interceptions (seven) and is one of only three SEC teams, along with Georgia and Texas A&M, to rank in the top 30 nationally in both rushing defense and passing defense.

"They are a lot better on defense than what people thought coming out of the Texas game and are only getting better," one SEC coach told ESPN.

Rest assured, this week of practice won't be a picnic for anybody at Alabama. Not after the Tide committed 14 penalties (nine pre-snap penalties on offense), had two turnovers, gained a measly 23 rushing yards, had quarterback Jalen Milroe get sacked six times, had a touchdown called back on a blocked field-goal attempt and mismanaged the clock at the end of the game.

As one Alabama staff member said Saturday as the players headed toward the team bus, "This is when Coach is at his best. He'll be on everybody's ass. You'd never know that we just won the game."

Saban's message to his team late Saturday afternoon in the visiting locker room was both pointed and firm. He didn't hold back and knows as well as anybody that this team doesn't have the margin of error that some of his other teams did.

"Where it shows up the most is our depth. We don't have the depth we used to," Saban told ESPN. "But I don't know that anybody does with the portal. It's even more important for me to be positive with this team and do everything we can as coaches to make sure they do it the way we want it done.

"How much can we improve in the areas that are hurting us right now, all the self-inflicted wounds? That's the question. So any frustration I might have is with myself in making sure we get that done and not with the players."

One factor that has worked against Alabama is the turnover on the coaching staff, and Saban admitted having so many coaches coming and going has been a challenge. At some point, teaching the coaches every year how he wants things done becomes taxing. Alabama has two new coordinators this season, Tommy Rees on offense and Kevin Steele on defense. Rees is Alabama's sixth offensive coordinator since the 2016 season, and Saban has also had to replace numerous position coaches over the last few years.

"We've had so many new coaches, and for different reasons," Saban said. "I can't be in every position room, and it becomes a challenge in trying to teach people to do things the way you want them done, but not inhibit them from doing what they want to do, but still kind of doing what you believe in."

It's true that Saban, who turns 72 later this month, is not enamored with the current version of college football, specifically the transfer portal making it more difficult to develop players and create depth and NIL being used as a way to pay players out of high school.

What isn't true is that Saban, with his six national championships at Alabama, is ready to go quietly into the night. The retirement talk will continue to pick up steam, as it would for any coach Saban's age, but his zest to challenge his players and himself to be the very best hasn't waned one bit.

It's been a while (maybe going back to Saban's first season) since Alabama has been on the outside looking in as far as being equipped to make a national title run.

For the most part, his players don't seem to mind the spotlight being directed elsewhere for a change. The only spotlight with any meaning is the one that shines on those teams vying for the four playoff spots come early December.

"No matter what opponent we're playing, we're going to give our best, we're going to play four quarters of football, and we're going to have fun," Milroe said. "And we're going to play to the standard that we all know is in our locker room."

It's a standard that never changes at Alabama.

Milroe's progression will go a long way toward determining whether the Crimson Tide can get back to the playoff. They've never gone more than two years without winning a national title under Saban, which puts his astonishing run into perspective.

Milroe is coming off his best game of the season against Texas A&M with 321 yards passing and three touchdowns. He hit several big plays down the field, and all three of his scoring throws came on either second- or third-and-long. The feeling on Alabama's staff is that Milroe is growing as his repetitions in practice and games increase. He split reps all preseason and didn't even play Week 3 against South Florida.

Saban was heartened to see Milroe respond from his third-quarter interception Saturday with a game-tying touchdown the next time Alabama got the ball. Milroe remains limited in some areas. He's taken too many sacks, doesn't always get to his second option quickly enough and has made some ill-advised decisions on costly interceptions. But playing the way he did against Texas A&M, and doing so in such a hostile environment, was a good sign for him and Alabama.

Asked where he's grown the most, Milroe said, "Just acknowledging that I'm not a finished product, but just overall trying to be the best version I can for the team. It's all about the team. There's no single success at all. Everything is for the team, and that's what I try to do as much as possible.

"It's just, 'How can I be a better leader, be a better passer and do anything that is asked of me playing quarterback here?'"

What will Alabama's quarterback situation look like going forward? Milroe has two more seasons remaining. There's a lot of optimism on the staff surrounding true freshman Dylan Lonergan and nobody has given up on redshirt freshman Ty Simpson, who was ESPN's No. 2 dual-threat quarterback prospect in the 2022 signing class. Also, five-star commit Julian Sayin of Carlsbad, California, ESPN's No. 1 dual-threat QB prospect, is part of the 2024 class. The Tide are likely to look in the portal for quarterbacks too.

Elite competition on the practice field has fueled Alabama's championship run under Saban, although stockpiling quarterbacks has become nearly impossible. Regardless, Alabama's quarterback room likely will look different next year.

Of course, the future for Saban is the next practice or the next meeting.

Just before he hopped into an SUV that would take him to the College Station airport Saturday, Saban shook his head and pierced his lips tightly.

"We're making it way too hard," he said in a hushed tone.

The truth is it's probably going to be that way the rest of the season for his team.

But as Saban has proven, Alabama has long been the SEC's version of Dracula. It seems there's just no killing the Crimson Tide, even when they appear to be at their most vulnerable.