Lest anyone thinks the last two years are on the mind of Nick Saban, that’s not the way he rolls. Saban looks ahead.
Reading the Ole Miss site, one would think there had been only two games in the Alabama-Mississippi series and they are thinking, “trice is nice.” To be sure, the Rebels have won the last two games against Bama, including last year, which was the only Crimson Tide loss in a national championship season. Overlooked is that Alabama has won 51 games on the field and Ole Miss has won 10 (two games have been tied in the 64 games, and the Rebels also benefit from three Bama victories having been vacated and one forfeited by NCAA dictum).
That doesn’t dismiss the fact that the Rebels have won the last two games, both by six points – 23-17 in Oxford in 2014 and 43-37 in Tuscaloosa last year.
The series resumes Saturday in expanded (64,038) Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford. Kickoff is at 2:30 p.m. CDT and CBS will televise the game.
Asked if Mississippi’s two-game winning streak would be a motivating factor for Alabama, Saban said it wouldn’t be part of his preparation. As to whether it might be to the players, he said, “I’m not psychiatrist enough to know.”
Instead, Saban said, he would not focus with the players on the emotion of the game. There will be plenty of that, he said, because it’s the first Southeastern Conference game, and, he admitted, “a team that we’ve struggled against the last couple of years.”
Saban said he wants the focus of the players to be “[W]hat do I need to do to go out there and pay attention to the details of the things that are right in front of me, which is how do I block this play, how do I cover this guy, how do I tackle this runner, how do I leverage this ball. Those types of things.
“I think the focus for us needs to be better execution as a team. I talked about this a little bit after the game (Alabama 38, Western Kentucky 10 last Saturday), and after reviewing the film, I think when we have issues, when we give up plays on defense, when we have negative plays on offense, it comes from the fact that fundamental execution is not really what it needs to be. That's something that we really need to improve on. I think we've got to make sure that we're spending the time in practice to get the fundamental execution that we need. I think this helps everybody play better. I think it benefits everybody. I think it benefits the unit that you play on. Playing in the SEC, playing against better teams, playing on the road -- all these things are definitely things that we need to emphasize and improve on.”
Saban hasn’t lost many games as Alabama head coach. He is 102-18 at Alabama. A reporter suggested he has an excellent record in rematch games, games in which he was on the losing side one year and came back to win against that team the next.
“We didn’t do so well in the rematch game last year against these guys,” Saban said. “That’s probably the worst game we played here for a long time. Turned the ball over five times and gave up three explosive plays on defense on really mental errors.
“So these are the types of things that I think the emphasis has to be on. If you make those kinds of plays you’re going to struggle. I think that everybody’s got to really focus on, ‘I’ve got to do my job, and I’ve got to do it with a lot of physical effort and toughness and being aggressive. But I can’t get so emotional that I make bad decisions about what my responsibility and what my job is.’
“I think that’s something that we need to do better as a team if we’re going to have success in our league – whether it’s this game or games to come. It’s going to be important that we can develop that.
“I keep going back to the fact that everything that we mess up, it's not really what the other team did. It's more what we didn't do. So we can get more focus on execution, the process of what we need to do to get it right, I think that will be very, very important. Emotion doesn't last in the game. Character, want-to, commitment to what you're doing, playing for 60 minutes in the game, one play at a time, regardless of what happened in the last game, is the mind-set that you want. And I hope that our players understand that that's what we'll need in this game.
“We just emphasize this game and the importance of the things you need to do in this game. I’m not saying this is like any other game. It’s the most important game that we play because it’s a game that we’re playing this week against a very, very good team. But it’s important every week that you have the right sense of urgency, the right mental intensity, the right immediacy about, ‘I’ve got to do this right now.’ These are all, do you call them emotional or do you call them mindsets that get you to perform well. I think creating a bunch of anxiety with players is not the best way to go when it comes to being able to perform well. I think that we were pretty anxious in the game last year and it sure didn’t help us play very well. Hopefully, we won’t have anxiety, we’ll have high achievement motivation and go over there with a sense of purpose and be able to stay focused on that sense of purpose for 60 minutes in the game.”
Saban also emphasized the quality of this week’s opponent.
He said, “We're certainly looking forward to starting the SEC season. It's a great challenge for us early in the season against a very, very good team. Playing on the road early on has its own challenges. This is a team that has been a really prolific offensive football team. They've got a really good quarterback (Chad Kelly), a really good tight end in (Evan) Engram. And a lot of other really good players, young players that are really good players. When we have struggled in the past we have given up explosive plays, which is something that their offense is constantly trying to create. It's going to be important for us to really play well in the back end, control the line of scrimmage so that they can't run the ball effectively against us.
“Defensively, these guys are very aggressive, very quick; very quick, aggressive front. Do a lot of movement. Always have against us. That's going to be a challenge for our offensive line. That's where it's going to start in terms of us getting better execution on the offensive side of it.
“They're very well coached. Hugh Freeze has done a fabulous job there. I think this guy's one of the best coaches in our league and does a great job with the players that he has. The fastball pace that they use offensively is always challenging, and it's certainly something that our players are going to have to do a good job with. We've played against it a lot more. Hopefully, our players are more adapted to it and will be able to play a little better.”
On a positive note, Saban said the Tide had no significant injuries in the Western Kentucky game and that he expected wide receiver Cam Sims, who was injured in the season-opening win over Southern Cal, would be back.