No. 10 Alabama in unfamiliar territory -- out of contention
Bryce Young was 9 years old the last time Alabama played a regular-season game without national championship implications.
That was five national titles ago.
Now, thanks to two ever-so-slender defeats - by a total of four points - Young and the 10th-ranked Crimson Tide (7-2, 4-2 Southeastern Conference) are almost certainly back in that scenario for the first time since that 2010 team went 10-3.
Downright disastrous by the stratospheric standards of Nick Saban’s ‘Bama teams.
“I know people have kind of written us off to some degree,” Saban said on Monday. “But at the same time, I think we have a lot of pride as an organization. I think we need to focus on what it takes to win games. Play the game, win the game, prepare for the game.”
Alabama must regroup in time to visit Lane Kiffin and No. 11 Mississippi (8-1, 4-1) on Saturday.
FanDuel Sportsbook has installed the Tide as 11 1/2-point favorites, but both losses have come on the road. LSU is in the driver’s seat of the SEC West with essentially a two-game lead thanks to wins over Alabama and Ole Miss.
Rebels coach Kiffin doesn’t want to hear any of the “dynasty is over” chatter, saying that two plays are separating Alabama from coming in unbeaten and ranked 1 or 2.
“We’re talking about two plays, two teams on the road in two of the hardest environments - over 100,000 fans - to play in,” said Kiffin, a former Saban offensive coordinator at Alabama.
“This is a great team and the best coach to ever do it.”
The Tide figures to be heavily favored in its last two games. against Austin Peay and struggling rival Auburn. Now, the challenge isn’t playing with the pressure of staying in the national title hunt, it’s playing well without that prospect.
“I think it’s a challenge, but at the same time I think we’ve still got a lot to play for,” defensive end Byron Young said. “We’ve got to play for the name on the back of our jerseys. We’ve got to play for the `A’ on the front of it.
“And we’ve got to play for everybody that’s beside us because I’m gonna come in here every single day and work just like I’m going to play for a national championship next Saturday. And that’s what I expect everybody else to do.”
Alabama has played in 171 regular season games with national championship implications since 2008 and only three without, a note that was culled from the team’s game notes this week. Those three came in the 2010 season.
Alabama has posted double-digit wins every season since Saban’s 2007 debut and needs to win three of four to keep that string going, counting a bowl game.
The Tide, which lost to Georgia in the national championship game last season, returned as the favorite to win a seventh crown under Saban. Alabama, after all, had arguably the two best players in college football returning, probably for only one more season: the Heisman Trophy-winning Bryce Young and linebacker Will Anderson Jr. Both are highly rated NFL prospects ahead of next year’s draft.
The second loss had Saban complaining about the unfairness of placing such expectations on his team “before they ever have a body of work.”
“But I think that’s kind of the nature of the beast in this day and age,” he said. “But I think being able to handle that, not putting pressure on yourself to try to live up to that expectation, sort of creates a lot of anxiety in some cases.”
Saban said he wants his players to experience joy, not relief, from winning.
“I think I’ve done a pretty average job of getting our players out of that mode,” he said.
This team never really was the consistently dominant group many expected. The offensive line has struggled at times to protect Young, and he hasn’t had go-to receivers like Jameson Williams and John Metchie III last season.
The defense has given up some big plays, including LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels’ 25-yard touchdown run in overtime.
Alabama won squeakers against Texas and SEC West cellar dweller Texas A&M, meaning four games have gone down to the wire.
Saban was asked to evaluate the performance of the offense and offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, and didn’t directly answer the latter part.
“Look, there’s things that we need to do better in every part of our organization,” he said. “I’m not going to analyze somebody publicly, good, bad or indifferent. We’re all working hard together. We’re all responsible for what we do. Do we need to play better on both sides of the ball? Absolutely.
“There’s not a coach or a player in this organization that can’t do things better to help our players have a better chance to be successful.”