Monday, December 4, 2023

Alabama’s Tide could be changing as struggles mount ahead of Week 4 test

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Welcome to the strange and nervous world of woe-is-Alabama football, where in the Cotton State you can cut the anxiety with a Q-tip swab. Even Big Al the elephant looks a little worried. See that traditional A he’s wearing? It now stands for angst.

Why? That’s easy. There have been bizarre, unsettling sights in the early going.

Nick Saban had never lost an Alabama home game by double digits. Not in 111 of ‘em. But now he has.

The Crimson Tide had not fallen out of the top-10 since the Obama administration. But now they are.

📈 RANKINGS: Alabama falls in Week 4 AP Top-25

They’ve routinely treated unranked nonconference opponents like a tray of shrimp cocktail, whetting their appetites for the SEC main course to come. But they had to fight for their lives last Saturday to get out of South Florida, a struggling wannabe that is 5-31 this decade. For the game, the Alabama quarterbacks had no touchdown passes, but five sacks. This does not compute.

Bama is usually reaching blastoff velocity by the fourth week of the season. But Sunday there was a players-only meeting to try to sort out the anguish.

The Tide usually makes the statistical national rankings glow. But look at some of their current numbers: 100th in passing offense, 82nd in total offense, 56th in rushing defense, 45th in turnover margin, tied for 123rd in sacks allowed.

Conventional wisdom assumes Saban is the undisputed king of active coaches. But now Deion Sanders has declared himself for the high office, never mind that Saban has won four more FBS national championships than Sanders has won FBS games. Visit any website, talk show or sports page and it’s Coach Prime who has the public riveted. Meanwhile, there is incoming fire from the media and masses about the offensive line, the secondary, the offensive coordinator, even Saban for his dithering about the quarterback spot.

In normal times, answers to any Tide problems invariably become clearer by late September. But Saban isn’t even entirely sure about who the quarterback should be yet, though Jalen Milroe is the decision. For now. And that’s a position that has sent its past four inhabitants to the NFL. From Jalen Hurts to Tua Tagovailoa to Mac Jones to Bryce Young, like a 4 X 250 (passing yards a game) relay.

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All of the above is bringing considerable consternation to the state, from Muscle Shoals to Mobile, since everything is so irregular, never mind the record is still 2-1. Perhaps it is time to call for calm.

Well, Saban is, anyway. “I’ve liked this group so far,” he was saying in his Monday press conference. “I just think our execution has got to get a little more consistent.”

The next installment of the new falls series Is Something Wrong With Alabama? will come in Tuscaloosa Saturday, but there is an element of danger, with No. 15 Ole Miss and former Tide offensive button-pusher Lane Kiffin arriving in town. Kiffin has even questioned who is calling the defensive plays at Alabama. Everyone is wondering about the Tide these days.

And now let us pose this nightmare scenario. What if Alabama actually loses Saturday? All types of historical bells would be going off.

Ole Miss is 2-28 in Tuscaloosa. But that would change.

Saban is 28-3 against former assistants and 4-0 against Kiffin. But that would change.

Saban is 15-1 in SEC home openers at Alabama. He’s 58-7 in all conference games in Tuscaloosa. He has won 73 of his past 77 home games overall. But all that would change.

It has been 16 years since an Associated Press Top 25 Poll appeared without the name Alabama. But lose Saturday, and that might change.

The Tide have not been 0-1 in the SEC in eight years, nor suffered two September defeats since 2007. But those would change.

The College Football Playoff is nine years old and Alabama has missed the party only twice. But lose Saturday, and it could be three absences in five years, and possibly leave two months of a season with the main goal all but gone. Unheard of in Tuscaloosa.

In other words, the damage would be so heavy with a defeat Saturday, even the Bear Bryant statue might be covering his eyes. Crunch time has come early this year for the Tide, while they try to hold off Oregon State, Duke and Colorado in the middle of the rankings.

A most unusual situation, with so much peril. And yet, we’re still talking about Alabama and a coach who is 177-20 his past 15 seasons. The Tide in retreat will have to be seen to be believed.

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