Nick Saban wants Alabama to be focused but loose after loss to Tennessee


TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The sour stench of panic didn’t linger in the air at the University of Alabama on Monday. Only a few crushed beer cans on the sidewalk were a reminder of the miserable weekend that was. Students still walked to class under massive oak trees. The line at Starbucks on campus was still interminably long. And, yes, pumpkin spice was still in stock. Across the street, Alpha Phi still said it “loves the Tide” according to the massive banner hung from the sorority house, written in swirly letters best described as modern farmhouse chic.

After the Crimson Tide’s heartbreaking defeat to Tennessee, all was not lost. A billboard right off the interstate promoting a barbecue joint doubled as a rallying cry. Beside a picture of a pulled pork sandwich, the ad featured Alabama coach Nick Saban’s slogan in all caps, “TRUST THE PROCESS.”

Saban and the Tide have been here before. There were losses to LSU in 2011, Texas A&M in 2012, Ole Miss in 2015 and Auburn in 2017 that felt like omens of a dynasty in decline but instead were only hiccups on the way to more national championships. Many of the same players who waded through the field-storming Saturday in Knoxville, Tennessee, dealt with the exact same situation a year and a week earlier at Texas A&M; both games featured walk-off field goals and Tide players leaving in defeat. Alabama rebounded from that loss in College Station, beat Georgia to win the SEC and then lost to Georgia in the national title game.

Which is not to say that every situation is the same and everything is going to be OK this time around. This Alabama team might not be capable of reaching the College Football Playoff. It has issues that must be resolved first, whether it’s undisciplined play in general or, more specifically, a struggling pass defense, receivers who can’t get open and a mediocre offensive line. The Tide lead the FBS in both penalties (66) and drops (21).

When Saban met with the media at noon Monday, he didn’t raise his voice or scream in defiance. Instead, he struck a dual tone, focusing on his team’s room for improvement while taking a hard line that anyone not willing to put in the work will be in danger of riding the bench.

“This is something from the bottom up, all right?” Saban told reporters. “I mean, I’m talking about coaches, I’m talking about every player, I’m talking about me. We’ve all got to do a better job to help these guys learn from their mistakes, improve and get better.”

Learning occurs best when you make a mistake, Saban later said, “but you have to take advantage of that.”

At one point, Saban was asked about penalties — a sore subject after his team committed 17 against Tennessee and 15 against Texas — and audibly sighed. He can live with penalties that come from players being too aggressive, but mental mistakes like false starts and offsides are another matter. They’re the result of bad habits created in practice, he said. And if players continue to make the same mistakes, then “maybe we need to play with someone else,” he warned.

But Saban defended his team as well.

“Look, our players all want to win,” he said. “And regardless of how everybody feels, we feel worse. You know, the players are out there competing. They’re playing hard. Maybe not always playing smart. Maybe making too many errors that we need to fix. And as coaches we need to help fix them.”

Saban said his team felt tight against Tennessee. In the tunnel before the game, he noticed how quiet the players were. “Why aren’t you guys chanting?” he told them. “What’s up with that?”

Will Anderson Jr., the leader of the defense and a projected top NFL draft pick at outside linebacker, noticed the silence too. He said he could feel his teammates’ “anxiety.”

“The intensity was not where it needs to be,” he said.

During the team’s stretch period Sunday, Anderson and the veterans huddled and spoke about how to get things back on track. Pay attention to the little things, Anderson demanded, even if it’s as little as making sure everyone has their shirts tucked in at practice.

“I heard a lot of guys after the game saying, ‘We know what this feels like. We know how to turn this around,'” Anderson recalled. “I said, ‘But do we really know how to get through this? Do we know what it takes? Are we willing to get over the hump?'”

So far, so good.

Anderson likes how the team responded during Monday morning’s workouts. He saw energy and enthusiasm. He has said he’s “very confident” and believes “we’re going in the right direction.”

Only time will tell, of course. On Saturday, Alabama will welcome No. 24 Mississippi State to Bryant-Denny Stadium. Saban called Bulldogs coach Mike Leach “one of the most difficult guys offensively to defend.”

Leach’s Air Raid offense is in good hands this season with veteran quarterback Will Rogers and a deep group of receivers. What’s more, Saban said, it is more balanced, with a better running game, than in years past.

“It’s going to be a challenging game for us,” Saban said, “and we’ll see how players respond to the situation we’ve created for ourselves.”

Survive Mississippi State and trips to LSU and No. 7 Ole Miss are up next. After that, it’s on to face Austin Peay and Auburn.

As Saban told his team postgame in Knoxville, there’s no more room for error. But, he said, “We can accomplish every goal that we had at the start of the season.”

Win out and Alabama can still win the SEC West and reach the conference championship game. It might even get a rematch with Tennessee in Atlanta.

But that’s a long way away.

For now, Saban wants his team to play with a different attitude — focused but loose. He wants to hear the players chant in the tunnel again.

Think of it like a pickup basketball game, he said. If your opponent hits a 3, you don’t cower in fear. You keep playing and have fun.

Don’t worry about the scoreboard, he said. Don’t worry about the outcome.

“Just go play,” Saban said. “Compete. And then when the game’s over and if we do that and we do it well as a collective group, we can live with the results.”

In other words: Trust your training and trust the process.

Alabama has been in this place before, and it’s no time for panic. Tuscaloosa is still standing with more than a month left in the regular season, come what may.



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