In a cramped, windowless room inside Darrell K Royal Stadium, the Crimson Tide’s often crotchety coach smiled and offered to help a cameraman who was struggling to set up his microphone stand. Then he proceeded to praise his team’s resilience.
“You gotta say that’s great from a competitive standpoint, I think it’s great from a team character standpoint,” he said. “But if we’re going to be the kind of team that we want to be, that we’re capable of being, we’re going to have to play better down in and down out.”
And this is where things started to get prickly because almost nothing aside from Alabama’s grittiness seemed worthy of the No. 1-ranked team in college football. Remember, they were more than 20-point favorites entering the day. And that was before Texas’ starting quarterback, Quinn Ewers, was knocked out of the game with a clavicle injury in the first quarter. Still, it took a last-second field goal to hold on and beat an unranked team.
When Saban got worked up — when he looked back on mistake after mistake — he punctuated his sentences by slapping at the plastic table he was seated in front of.
“When you’re playing games like this, you have to focus on what’s in front of you,” he said. “You can’t worry about all the other stuff that’s going on — what people say, what they say on ESPN, what you all [the media] say, how much you’re favored in the game. You have to focus on what’s in front of you. You’re an offensive lineman, that’s the guy you gotta block. If you’re a receiver, that’s the guy you gotta beat. If you’re a quarterback, you gotta take what the defense gives you. If you’re a runner, you gotta press the hole and make the right cuts.”
Saban stepped right up to the line of a proper rant before pulling himself back.
But will that change once he returns to Tuscaloosa, sits down in a dark room, clicker in hand, and reviews the tape?
Once the relief of winning fades, just how worried should he be?
Let’s break down the most pressing issues facing the Tide, ranking the level of panic on a scale of 1-5.
Penalties | Panic level: 1
It was Alabama’s first nonconference road trip since 2011. And yeah, the players had to contend with a raucous, record-setting crowd of 105,213. Plus, it was miserably hot. But does that excuse a whopping 15 penalties? That’s the most ever under Saban at Alabama and the most for the Tide since 2002.
Saban wasn’t buying any excuses.
“If you jump offsides on defense, that doesn’t have anything to do with crowd noise,” Saban said. “If you block a guy in the back, that doesn’t have anything to do with crowd noise. So a lot of them are undisciplined penalties.”
He started slapping the table again.
“But we have to be able to play and manage crowd noise if we’re going to play in this league, in the SEC,” he said. “Because every place we play is going to be like this.”
Standout linebacker Will Anderson Jr. even got flagged, jumping offsides three times. Anderson, who committed a fourth penalty when he hit a player who had already fallen to the ground, said he was “trying to anticipate too much.”
If a normally reliable player like Anderson could catch the penalty bug, maybe it’s safe to say 15 penalties were a bit of a fluke.
Offensive line | Panic meter: 5
But what about those false starts? If Alabama’s line couldn’t keep its composure at Texas, how is it going to fare on the road at Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU?
The Tide can work on using a silent snap count until they’re blue in the face, but the real concern isn’t penalties as much it is performance. Because all of the optimism built up over the offseason, thanks in large part to the addition of former Kentucky offensive line coach Eric Wolford, evaporated under the pressure the Longhorns’ front seven created.
It was the same type of mediocre play we saw last season.
Tide quarterback Bryce Young was sacked twice and was pressured on 12 dropbacks. And the run blocking wasn’t much better. Aside from an 81-yard touchdown run by Jase McClellan, they weren’t able to pick up consistent yards between the tackles. Half of Alabama’s 24 rush attempts were for 3 or fewer yards.
With no obvious reinforcements on the way, the hope is that the line improves the old-fashioned way: steady development.
There was a stretch when Alabama punted on six consecutive possessions against Texas, including three three-and-outs. And Saban was blunt about why.
“Well, we didn’t block ’em very well up front,” he said. “We didn’t protect very well, got pressure in the pocket. Wasn’t very effective throwing the ball. Didn’t get people open. Probably need to do a better job from a planning standpoint, the way they played us.”
Wide receivers | Panic meter: 4
Let’s go back to the “didn’t get people open” line. Because arguably the biggest surprise from Saturday was the underwhelming performance by Alabama’s receivers.
For the past four seasons, the Tide have been spoiled at receiver. First, they had the young trio of Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith and Henry Ruggs III to lean on. Then along came John Metchie and, thanks to the transfer portal, Jameson Williams.
We saw how well the offense performed last season when Metchie and Williams were both healthy and playing at an All-American level. Williams’ ability to stretch the field vertically made everyone’s jobs easier.
But we saw against Auburn and Georgia what it was like when they weren’t both available.
Without Metchie’s sure hands and Williams’ dangerous speed, defenses felt more comfortable loading the box and going after Young.
Texas wasn’t exactly worried about the deep ball on Saturday. Only 13 of Young’s 27 completions went to his receivers because they simply couldn’t create separation.
Fifth-year senior Traeshon Holden has developed nicely, but he’s essentially a possession receiver.
Kobe Prentice is a promising freshman with some explosiveness, but he’s inexperienced.
Jermaine Burton was supposed to make a Jameson Williams-like impact after transferring from Georgia after last season — and it looked that way in the opener against Utah State, when he caught a pair of touchdowns — but then he disappeared against the Longhorns, catching only two passes for 10 yards.
Maybe transfer Tyler Harrell can be a difference-maker once he sees the field. He reportedly ran a 4.24 second 40-yard dash at Louisville’s pro day in 2021, so he has the kind of top-end speed Alabama has been missing without Williams. But Harrell has been out with a foot sprain and Saban has offered no timeline on his return.
Cornerback | Panic meter: 3
The addition of former LSU All-American cornerback Eli Ricks in December seemed to take an already loaded defense and put it over the top.
The Tide already had veteran safeties in Jordan Battle and DeMarcco Hellams. Plugging in Ricks alongside an inexperienced but talented cornerback like former four-star Kool-Aid McKinstry or Khyree Jackson would make all the pieces fit perfectly.
But Ricks’ development was slowed by injuries, and Saban hinted Ricks needed more time to learn the defense. And once the initial depth chart was released prior to the season opener, Ricks wasn’t listed as the definitive starter.
Judging by what Texas did in the passing game Saturday — racking up five receptions of 20 or more yards despite having to make a change at quarterback — neither Ricks nor Jackson nor McKinstry appear ready to anchor the position.
Ricks didn’t show up on the stat sheet at all, McKinstry got an earful from Saban after he was beaten on at least one deep ball and Jackson was pulled in favor of Terrion Arnold after he was beaten a few too many times.
The good news is Arnold more than held his own, racking up five tackles and a pass breakup. And there’s still time for Ricks to be the player he was at LSU.
“I got confidence in all of them,” Saban said, “but when Terrion went into the game, I thought he did a really good job, made a couple really nice plays.”
Quarterback | Panic meter: 0
Panic? Are you kidding? Without Young at quarterback, Alabama would be doomed.
Despite playing in front of a leaky offensive line and despite having limited options in the passing game, relying largely on running back Jahmyr Gibbs, Young didn’t get flustered.
When hope was dwindling — when Alabama was down six points after a Texas field goal and was coming off six straight drives that ended in punts — Young took over with 12:55 left in the fourth quarter and didn’t flinch. He marched Alabama 68 yards down the field, rolled to his right on first-and-goal and threw a dart off his back foot to Gibbs for the go-ahead touchdown.
When Texas responded with a field goal to retake the lead, Young again showed his resolve. Getting the ball down one point with 1:29 remaining, Young completed four straight passes and then scrambled for 20 yards to set up the game-winning, 33-yard field goal by Will Reichard.
Afterward, a reporter asked Saban why Young seems to come up big in crucial moments.
“Why is he so good?” he said, grinning. “I mean, if I could actually tell you that, I don’t know if I’d be doing this.”
Saban then proceeded to lay out some of the reasons why Young won the Heisman Trophy last season and is considered a possible No. 1 pick in next year’s draft: the way he studies and prepares for games, his understanding of protections, his ability to extend plays.
“And he is accurate throwing the ball,” Saban said. “And he’s very, very instinctive. I mean, he plays quarterback like a point guard in basketball. He’s got talent, but he doesn’t just play with his talent. He’s very well prepared and knows exactly what the game plan is and what he needs to do to execute it.”
But even Saban’s compliment came with a warning tacked on.
“You know,” Saban said, “players around him have got to play well, too. Quarterback’s a hard position to play when players around you don’t play well.”
Young has proved to be a championship-caliber quarterback. Whether Alabama is a championship-caliber team remains to be seen.
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