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There are various reasons that major college football teams play occasional games against mid-majors. Some schedule such games in hopes of picking up victories that may be the difference in being bowl eligible. Some do it as a money game, buying a team for a relative pittance while charging fans more than the game would seem to be worth.
Alabama has fallen into a pattern of playing a Power Five opponent at a neutral site (this year Wisconsin in Dallas) in its season-opening game each year, then having a couple of early mid-major games during the season, and, finally, playing a weak opponent – this year Charleston Southern (and if you don’t think it’s weak, what’s the nickname and who is the coach?) – prior to the Auburn game.
The second of two of those mid-majors comes this week. Ordinarily, Louisiana-Monroe in the fourth game of the year would be something of a chance to rest many of the starters and give back-ups some work prior to starting the tough October schedule. This year it takes on a different hue.
It is not that Monroe is a powerful team. Georgia opened the season with a 51-14 win over the Warhawks.
What makes it more important is that Alabama played poorly in a loss to Ole Miss last week and needs to bounce back with a good performance this week.
When one examined the Crimson Tide schedule prior to the start of the season, it looked like Bama would get through the September games with relative ease, then move into what all analysts saw as a very tough October stretch.
Not to look ahead, but a week from Saturday Alabama goes to Georgia to take on the team favored to win the Southeastern Conference Western Division, followed by Arkansas in Tuscaloosa, a tough road trip to Texas A&M, and finally a home game against Tennessee, the team expected to challenge the Bulldogs for the East title.
That loss to Ole Miss means Alabama can’t afford another stub of the toe. And that means that the Crimson Tide must make improvement in preparation for Monroe and in Saturday’s game against the Warhawks.
Alabama Coach Nick Saban said this week that the players have worked hard in practice. He said, “I think it’s as much a part of the Alabama way, of the program we have here, for people to respond the right way when they’re tested. Based on the preparation so far, that has been good. Now we have to clean it up and get the mental practice and clean up the mistakes so we can go out and execute and do it better.”
He added that he means the entire team, that some are responding. He said, “We need all the guys to do it, because if everybody doesn’t do his job, things don’t work out well. That’s what we’re trying to get focused on.”
The big issue on Alabama’s plate would seem to be avoiding turnovers. The Crimson Tide’s six-point loss to Ole Miss was much the result of Bama’s two lost fumbles and three interceptions.
Saban said, “We have emphasized turnovers more than I ever have in 42 years or however long I've been coaching. We do turnover drills every day. We do it against each other. I thought that when we didn't have any turnovers in the Wisconsin game, that was a good thing. We got one [against Wisconsin], we got four in the next game. I think we only had one. So it looked like we were making positive strides, then we turned the ball over five times in this game and we have to do a better job. We have to do more, and that's what we'll continue to do. I would say, and I said it before, even if we didn't have five turnovers, I would be standing here saying 'I think we need to play better.'"
And, he said, it’s not just the players who have to do a good job. He said it also includes the coaching staff, himself included, doing its best work. Saban said, “Our coaches work hard. I was not being critical of our coaches and it really kind of upsets me a little bit that somebody would think that. We're all responsible, we're all trying to do a better job. I think our coaches are working very hard, they've worked hard all year long. It's just very frustrating when you don't get the kind of execution that you want. We never blame the players. We all take responsibility for trying to help them do better and that's what we're all trying to do."
Alabama hosts Louisiana-Monroe at 3 p.m. CDT Saturday in Bryant-Denny Stadium. The SEC Network will televise the game.