A year ago, Coach Nick Saban seemed to be the only one happy with Alabama’s one-point win over Arkansas in Fayetteville. Following the Crimson Tide’s 27-13 come-from-behind victory over the Razorbacks in Tuscaloosa Saturday night, Saban could see the glass half full…or maybe more. And, once again this year, he had a slim band of fellow believers outside his team locker room.
It would be easy to have negative feelings about Alabama’s performance against Arkansas, particularly the first half at Bryant-Denny Stadium. There were turnovers and missed field goal attempts and the Crimson Tide trailed at halftime for only the 12th time in Saban’s eight and a half years at Bama.
Now Alabama faces three consecutive teams that have open dates before playing Alabama. The first of those is Texas A&M in College Station at 2:30 p.m. CDT Saturday, a game that will be televised by CBS.
Ever since Bama’s first Southeastern Conference game of the year, a six-point loss to Ole Miss, college football has been waiting for the Crimson Tide to be out of the picture. The first opportunity, at Georgia, was handled cleanly by the Tide. Now there will be many expecting the Aggies to deliver that Alabama elimination game.
Think back a year ago after Alabama had been beaten by Mississippi and escaped from Fayetteville with a 14-13 win. Saban lectured the Crimson Tide nation that it should be happy to defeat the Razorbacks. The words fell on skeptical ears.
But here is what happened. Bama romped over Texas A&M, 59-0; and then went to Knoxville and defeated Tennessee, 34-20, and followed that with a trip to LSU, where Bama won in overtime, 20-13.
Saturday night’s win over Arkansas seemed to come almost in spite of Bama’s efforts to misfire too often, to miss too many blocks. Saban saw it as “character building.”
“Absolutely,” he said. “Looking at last year and the Arkansas game, I think it turned the year around for us. I think we are headed on the right path now.
“We keep building on each week and our attention to detail continues to improve. The effort to improve is one of the intangibles you need as a team, and we definitely have that.”
Not many saw that, particularly in the first half. But what a difference a half makes. In the first half, quarterback Jacob Coker made bad decisions and threw two interceptions, one leading to an Arkansas touchdown that gave the Razorbacks a 7-3 lead at intermission. In the second-half, Coker threw two touchdown passes, including a game-changer to super freshman wide receiver Calvin Ridley.
Saban said that he had expected things to be tough against Arkansas. The start of the second half, he said, “is when you find out who you are.”
Here are some things we know:
Alabama’s defense is very salty. Reggie Ragland is having the kind of season that has come to be expected of Bama’s featured inside linebackers. Arkansas had 44 yards net rushing (take out the sacks as lost rushing yards and it’s still only 62 yards rushing) and 220 total yards, a quarter of that on a garbage time scramble pass.
Special teams has been making steady progress in every area except the field goal kicking of Adam Griffith. JK Scott is punting better (although a punt being partially blocked by a rush up the middle was not great), coverage on punts and kickoffs has been good, and the return game is solid. The hands team didn’t look very alert on the Arkansas onsides kick late in the game, which should get needed attention.
It is the offense where there are the most questions. Generally, Coker is a positive at quarterback, showing in the last two games that he can hit the long pass as well as the intermediate throws. Ridley has provided the big play receiver the Tide needed, particularly after Robert Foster was lost to injury. Richard Mullaney has been a good addition to the receiving corps, too.
But has anyone noticed that halfway through the season Alabama’s most honored pre-season player hasn’t even made the Tide coaches’ list of players of the week? Last week Saban agreed with a reporter who suggested that it was a good thing if an offensive lineman wasn’t noticed. Cam Robinson has been noticed for all the wrong reasons -- being beaten by the defensive rush, getting penalties.
That surely can be fixed, and surely needs to be fixed.
No one would suggest that Derrick Henry is not having a solid season, but even he has sometimes had difficulty getting untracked.
The bottom line, though, is Alabama this season is about where it was last year, and that is having no room for error if the Tide wants to get back to the SEC Championship Game and the College Football Playoff group of four.