Something is very wrong in Tuscaloosa. You know it. I know. Alabama fans know it. Alabama players know it. Lane Kiffin, the agent of chaos whose Ole Miss Rebels play Alabama this weekend, is enjoying it. And Nick Saban is coming to terms with it.
“We have already gone through some difficult periods and the players have recovered, but I think everyone has to commit to doing that,” Saban said on Monday. “It’s not easy. There’s a lot of tough competition ahead of us, but everyone has to challenge themselves, I think, to be their best as a player, their best as a teammate and their best as a leader.”
It’s usually not a good sign when a team has two referendum games in the first month, but that’s where Alabama is right now. The Tide failed in their first test against Texas two weeks ago. They’ll get a chance at redemption this weekend against Ole Miss, and by Saturday night we’ll have a much better idea of the depth of Alabama’s problems.
Because this is Alabama — and this is college football — the rumors, implications and innuendo surrounding the 2023 Tide are thick enough to grab hold of. But you don’t have to delve into all the palace intrigue speculation surrounding this team to see the extent of their problems; honest facts are more than enough.
Alabama is 2-1 on the season after a loss to Texas in Tuscaloosa and an uninspired win over South Florida. After spending an entire season debating the quarterback position, Saban has already played against three different quarterbacks, with results ranging from horrifying to barely reasonable. Alabama’s offensive line, loaded with four- and five-star recruits, is as sturdy as a weathered fence, the secondary was an on-ramp against Texas, and the receiving corps can’t handle separation or big plays. To top it all off, the team called a dreaded players-only meeting on Monday to, as guard Tyler Booker put it, “all get on the same page now.”
Many of Alabama’s problems — quarterback play, blocking, rally-killing penalties — were on full display against South Florida. Struggling in these situations is not unusual; Playing an unranked team, especially early in the season, is like trying to fold a fitted sheet. You start with a specific technique and strategy, and eventually you throw the whole thing up and put it in the closet.
Other teams fought their way through similar early difficulties on Saturday. It took Michigan a quarter and a half to find its footing against Bowling Green. Georgia trailed South Carolina by two possessions at halftime. Florida State let Boston College hang around until the end of the game.
But against South Florida, Alabama ended up with the sheet wrapped around his head and had to rip a hole in it to keep him from passing out. Other than the fact that the Tide averted a generation of App State-over-Michigan unrest, there is little good news, especially on the offensive side of the ball, from Saturday’s rain-soaked 17-3 debacle in Tampa.
“I have to do my best to get them ready for games like this,” Saban said Saturday. “We were a little flat at first.”
That’s like saying Alabama has won a few games in the last fifteen years. Quarterbacks Tyler Buchner and Ty Simpson combined to complete just 10 passes (five apiece) for a total of 107 yards against South Florida. Jalen Milroe, who had shared the SEC’s Offensive Player of the Week award in Week 1, didn’t see any action – feel free to speculate as to why; Twitter and Alabama message boards certainly are – and have almost by default succeeded in regaining the starting job.
Moreover, there is the issue of discipline in the game. A year after Alabama became the most penalized team in the FBS, penalties have turned the tide again in early 2023. Alabama has already had four touchdowns negated by penalties, two each against Texas and USF. It’s easy to play “what if,” but those touchdowns would have been the margin of victory against Texas, and then the college football world wouldn’t be dissecting Alabama like high schoolers in biology class.
There’s an argument that a little early adversity is good for a team. Kiffin, who continues to dance on the line between Alabama poking and poking the bear, also said as much earlier this week.
“Sometimes [an early-season loss] can humble the team a little bit and reset things,” he said. “You see that often. People have early losses, people start discounting them. Suddenly they start playing better and solving their problems.”
Kiffin knows firsthand what he’s talking about. He was the offensive coordinator in 2015, which — until this week — was the last time Alabama was outside the top 10. At the time, Alabama had just lost in Tuscaloosa to a ranked opponent – in this case Ole Miss – to fall to 2-1. Sounds familiar?
All the Tide did after that was cruise to the national championship, beating the likes of Georgia, LSU, Texas A&M, Michigan State and Clemson. Yes, Alabama had Derrick Henry, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Calvin Ridley on the roster, but that Tide team also didn’t have a future NFL starter at quarterback. (Sorry, Jake Coker.) There’s still a wide open path for Alabama to make all these early-season criticisms and issues irrelevant.
This year’s Alabama team is way down, but that’s far from over. For now.