Tide wary of becoming complacent
At 5-0 and winning easily, Alabama focused on staying focused
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban warned his team. Before Saturday night's game against Ole Miss, he warned the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide against a lack of focus. He showed players tape of Tim Tebow's "The Promise" speech from 2008 and vowed that the same could happen to them if they're not prepared.
Ole Miss got the better of the seemingly championship-bound Florida Gators four years ago, wrecking Tebow's dream in improbable fashion. There's a plaque outside of the UF football complex remembering the loss and Tebow's words that followed. The herculean quarterback's voice cracked when he told everyone he was sorry.
Saban doesn't want his team apologizing for anything. He showed the speech because he doesn't want failure to birth a champion.
Alabama didn't suffer the same fate against Ole Miss this past weekend, taking care of Hugh Freeze's Rebels in relatively easy order, 33-14. It wasn't the slapstick defeat fans had become accustomed to. Alabama had won its first four games by an average of 36.75 points. There were flaws -- a few fumbles, a few missed opportunities on offense, a few spoiled chances on defense -- but there were no tears. There was no parlance needed. The Crimson Tide stayed undefeated, and the dream of repeating as national champions stayed alive.
"What I told the team yesterday was most people get motivated when something bad happens," Saban said after the game. "They have a disappointment, or they feel some kind of pain, and then all of the sudden they want to change or do things better, practice better, work harder and change whatever and listen to what the coaches say and all those kind of things. We don't have that kind of circumstance."
Saban admitted that Alabama's gut wrenching 9-6 loss to LSU last season was a "motivating factor" in the Tide's run to a 14th national title.
This year feels different. Said safety Nick Perry, "We don't want to be compared to last year's national championship team or the 2009 national championship team. We want to create our own identity."
Through five games this season, there's been no slip-up needed as motivation, and Saban would like to keep it that way.
"Are we going to be a team that can show enough character to not have that happen before we continue to work and improve and have the leadership and do the things we need to do, so we don't sit around and say, 'We started dreaming about the possibilities of what we could have done if we would have done it right or if we would have prepared better,' " he said. "The solution is pretty obvious. Do it right to start with, and prepare the right way."
The message has been as consistent as it is ingrained. From the coach on down, the pursuit of perfection is blinding. The opponent is almost meaningless, as are the results. It took until late September for Alabama to even trail in a game.
Fifteen seconds later, the score was back in the Tide's favor. Cornerback Dee Milliner called it an odd feeling. It was the first time the scoreboard had mattered.
"We knew we'd have to overcome adversity," he said.
Adversity is something that's been lacking around Alabama this season as the Tide enter their fifth straight week at No. 1 in the polls. Quarterback AJ McCarron has gone all year without an interception and set a school record for pass attempts without throwing a pick in the process. His passing efficiency rating is an unseemly 177.04, good enough for seventh in the country.
Still, the junior from Mobile, Ala., isn't resting on his laurels. He's not waiting for his first mistake before he tries to get better.
"Anybody that wants to be great always battles themselves," McCarron said. "You never can master your craft. You can always get better in some sort of way. I think Tiger Woods said it best, 'You've never arrived as an athlete.' You always have something to work on."
Over the next six weeks, the Tide will have plenty to prepare for. Alabama gets a bye before traveling to play Missouri in Columbia next Saturday. The stretch after that includes consecutive games against Tennessee, No. 19 Mississippi State, No. 4 LSU and a 3-1 Texas A&M.
"It's going to be much harder," Milliner said. "Any time you go out and play an SEC opponent it's tough, and we have five in a row."
Said McCarron: "We just can't fall off. We can't go backwards."
For Saban, the test is two-fold moving forward: battle self-imposed expectations with the left hand while fighting off challengers with the right. Alabama has successfully traveled roads like the schedule ahead, the question is whether the Tide will come out on the other side unscathed and without need for apology.
Either way, no one will be able to say Saban didn't warn them.
"Nobody really listens to me until after the fact," Saban said, "And they say, 'Yeah, you were right.' "
In this case, Saban may not want to say I told you so.