TUSCALOOSA, Alabama – For some strange reason, No. 3 Alabama is a touchdown favorite to win at No. 6 Tennessee on Saturday in Neyland Stadium (3:30 p.m., CBS).
This does not make sense.
Alabama looked anything like a dominant team in lucking out again Saturday to beat Texas A&M, 24-20, and deservedly fell two spots from No. 1 in the Associated Press poll Sunday.
The Volunteers (5-0, 2-0 Southeastern Conference), meanwhile, and the next Steve Spurrier – coach Josh Heupel – are at the top of their game, coming off a breezy, 40-13 win at LSU on Saturday. They’re also at the top of the nation in total offense with 548 yards a game and No. 2 in scoring with a 46.8 average.
Tennessee senior quarterback Hendon Hooker is No. 1 in the SEC and No. 7 in the nation in passing efficiency at 179.5 with an uncanny zero interceptions, having hit 98 of 140 passes for 10 touchdowns.
Tennessee has dispatched three ranked teams – No. 17 Pittsburgh on the road, 34-27 in overtime, No. 20 Florida, 38-33, and No. 25 LSU on the road, 40-13. Now, it hasn’t played a great defense yet, but one can only play what is on one’s schedule.
Saban Might Have One Clear Edge
Alabama (6-0, 3-0 SEC) has the type defense Tennessee has not seen yet. The Tide is No. 1 in the SEC and No. 12 nationally against the pass with 166.3 yards allowed a game.
But Heupel’s high velocity attack looks more daunting than Alabama’s defense, and it has definitely passed the eye test. That is, if your eyes are quick enough. LSU, under supposedly a great defensive coordinator in Matt House, was often not even set before the snap. That has nothing to do with LSU’s talent shortage. That’s about poor preparation.
Alabama’s eyes, meanwhile, are getting a little bloodshot. The Tide could’ve and probably should’ve lost to Texas A&M Saturday night, but fortunately for the Alabama-heavy hyperventilating crowd of 100,077, cornerback Terrion Arnold knows how to read lips.
With a visual tip from the Aggies’ sideline, Arnold blanketed wide receiver Evan Stewart on the last play of the game from the 2-yard line. Quarterback Haynes King’s pass fell incomplete, and Alabama survived.
“I’m actually looking at Jimbo before the play, and he’s like, ‘Evan, Evan, Evan, Evan,'” Arnold said after the game. “OK. I’m ready.”
This was one of the louder Bryant-Denny Stadium crowds as there was Crimson Rage everywhere for Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher, who dared to poke and stab the bear last spring (Saban, not Bear Bryant) with some biting comments.
Arnold couldn’t have heard Fisher, who was near midfield. So, I asked him if he read his lips.
“Yeah, I was looking at Jimbo over there,” he said.
Jesus, Jimbo, how many more times are you going to let your mouth get yourself in trouble, whether you’re accurate or not?
Now, Stewart was targeted 18 times before that play and finished with eight catches for 106 yards, including a 23-yard catch on this last drive to the Alabama 37-yard line. So, Arnold had to be thinking that King was coming his way to Stewart, even before Jimbo decided to spell it out for anybody looking.
“I kinda had the feeling they were going to go to Evan on the last play of the game,” Arnold said. “Because we were battling back and forth. In my head, before the play, I’m thinking, ‘This is why you come to Bama.'”
Yes, and Bama continues to make its living generation after generation by pulling games out of its butt. And only Alabama could win a game when the opposing coach decides to let everyone know who the intended receiver is going to be.
Alabama won in very similar fashion at Texas, 20-19, on Sept. 10 by virture of a 33-yard field goal with 10 seconds to go. Alabama stumbled around in that game and this game, blew chances to put both away, got lucky and did what it needed to win each time. That is the Alabama program.
But after that game, Alabama had only Louisiana-Monroe and Vanderbilt on the schedule. Then Arkansas and Texas A&M, and no one really gave any of those a shot to win. And that really pisses Alabama coach Nick Saban off.
This week is different. Alabama just flopped around like a mediocre SEC team Saturday and was fortunate that Fisher decided to coach up both teams.
Tennessee will be a popular pick to beat Alabama this week. I picked Tennessee to beat Alabama weeks ago. It could happen.
And that’s exactly what Saban wants. He grew weary the last two weeks of trying to convince his players and his fan base that it could have lost to Arkansas or Texas A&M.
After this game, though, Alabama knows it can lose to a team like Tennessee. This may be as close as Alabama gets to the underdog role, and Saban loves it. This is his element.
This is a guy, who after a fortunate, 22-21 win as LSU’s coach over Oregon State in the 2004 opener, actually said he wished his team had lost so he would have their attention. Instead, he felt his team felt too bullet proof. And he was right, as that talented and defending national championship team underachieved and lost three games.
Alabama’s win Saturday while it stood in the end zone with A&M on the 2-yard line was close enough to a loss to an average A&M team (3-3, 1-2 SEC) to get everyone’s attention.
“We did a lot of things that were not winning football,” Saban said calmly after the game. “Penalties, four turnovers, didn’t take advantage of opportunities in the red zone, came up empty-handed a couple of times, whether we missed a field goal, didn’t score a touchdown, whatever it might be.”
Saban Not Worried
Saban sounded more like a kid making out his Christmas list than a crestfallen coach. This man is motivated by what not to do, and he always has been. This is why he has won seven national championships.
“So, we have a lot of things that we can work on,” he said.
He wasn’t giddy. He is 70 years old. But you could see it in his eyes.
“We’ve got a lot of things we need to improve on,” he said.
And he can’t wait to get started, because the players will be looking to him for coaching and guidance, not with a, “Yeah, whatever, we’re going to win. We’re Bama.”
Saban can just coach this week. He doesn’t have to worry about convincing everyone Alabama could lose. They know it.
Unfortunately for Alabama, Tennessee coach Josh Heupel has Saban right where he wants him. Saban tends to have trouble with coaches he has not gone against much early on in head-to-head matches.
Former LSU coach Les Miles beat Saban in three of their first five games, then never again. Former Florida coach Urban Meyer beat Saban in their first meeting, but never again. Former Auburn coach Gus Malzahn beat Saban in his first try, then lost three of the next five. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney beat Saban in two of his first four games.
If you’re going to beat Saban, better get him before he knows you too well. Heupel lost his first one to Saban last year, 52-24. But this Tennessee team is much better. This may be Heupel’s best chance.
I think it will happen.
Tennessee 34, Alabama 27.
And then Saban will really have his team’s attention.