Nick Saban's Heart Is With Alabama
As much as Alabama Coach Nick Saban does not want this week's game to be about him, it is impossible to overlook the obvious. Saban is going to be making his first trip to play LSU in Baton Rouge since he left the Bengal Tigers following the 2004 season.
Saban was head coach at LSU for five years and built the Tigers from a middle of the road pack to a team that won two national championships in four years, one under Saban (2003) and one under Les Miles (last season).
So this week it is Alabama, the current number one team, against LSU, last year's number one. Bama is 9-0 overall and 5-0 in Southeastern Conference play. LSU is 6-2 overall and 3-2 in the SEC. An Alabama win wraps up the SEC Western Division championship. If LSU wins, Bama could still win the division with victories over Mississippi State and Auburn in the final two weeks of the season.
Kickoff in Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge Saturday will be at 2:30 p.m. CST with national television coverage by CBS.
In his weekly media briefing Monday (attended by a handful of reporters and television broadcasters from Louisiana), Saban was cordial in fielding questions about his relationship with the LSU faithful. He was also forthright: the game is about the players, not about Nick Saban.
In his opening remarks, Saban said, "I know there are going to be a lot of people, who want to talk about this game, and I am going to say it again, this game is not about me. This is a very good team and this game should be about the players, on both sides. There are a lot of good players out there and two good football teams. We should be able to focus on what's going to happen on the field. We appreciated our time there. It was very special what we were able to do there. We have great memories and great friends, but my heart is with this team. This team has worked hard. We have had a lot of good leadership on this team and these guys deserve the best opportunity they can to be put in the best circumstance and situation to be successful and that is certainly what we're going to try and focus on."
Later he reiterated, "My heart is with our team. This team has worked hard. I have a tremendous amount of respect for our team. That's where our focus is now."
Saban frequently talks about "external factors," and there were plenty of them about Monday.
When Texas Tech completed its miracle comeback win over Texas late Saturday night, it resulted in Alabama being voted number one in virtually every college football poll this week. That includes being atop the BCS rankings, which determine the national championship game participants.
Saban said, "I think the number one thing for our team is we appreciate the acknowledgement (being number one in the nation), but that really doesn't define anything relative to what we are trying to accomplish, where we go toward the end of the season, and our pride and preparation and attention to detail and the things that this team has managed to handle well tol this point is going to be critical to us moving forward."
The news of Alabama being number one in the nation was overshadowed by midday as word came from Knoxville that longtime Tennessee Coach Phil Fulmer had been forced out effective the end of this season.
Saban was complimentary of Fulmer, whose Tennessee team Alabama had throttled both in 2007 and this year. Saban said, "I have a tremendous amount of respect for Phillip Fulmer and what he's done. I can't say enough about the great job he has done, winning conference championships and a national championship. From a professional standpoint, it's not a good part of this business (coaches being fired). I wish the best for him and his family."
Saban pointed out that the pleasure in athletics comes from winning because of the good job of execution by your team, not from some failing by the opponent. "You don't want anything bad for the other team," he said.
Although most attention is on the national championship, Alabama has a chance to clinch the SEC Western Division title Saturday. Asked about that possibility, Saban said, "I think every game that you have in the SEC is an important game. This is certainly an important game for us. They are a very good team. We have to play our games one game at a time and every one of our games in the SEC is important and this one is certainly important. We are not worried about anything except playing our best football so it gives us the best opportunity to be successful. Then when it's all said and done, we'll see what that brings us."
In his opening remarks, Saban said, "In reviewing the Arkansas State game, as I said after the game in the press conference, I think every player has to ask himself ‘Did I play better? Did I improve? Did I play to my full capacity?' Even though it was a good win for us and we did a lot of good things in the game, I think there were some inconsistencies that we certainly need to work on and try to improve, whether it be consistency in the passing game offensively or we didn't always fit the run gaps exactly right on defense. It was a challenging offense for us. I thought our players came out and played a little more aggressively in the second half. We certainly need to build on that for the future.
"From an injury standpoint, Terrence (Cody) will start working today. We don't really have a lot of other injuries. We have some nicked up guys, but everybody should be ready to go tomorrow for sure. We will just have to be day-to-day with Terrence, in terms of how he progresses. He has worked hard. He has rehabbed very well. He has stability. Now, we just need to see how he functions out there playing football and like I said it will have to be a day-to-day thing, in terms of how we bring him back.
"We are going to play a very, very good LSU team. They are a very talented team with a lot of good players. They are as good as anybody in our league, regardless of their record. They are very well coached. They won the national championship last year and they have a lot of good players. Offensively, they have great skills guys. They've got a good offensive line. They've got a good running game. They have good backs. The quarterback is young, but very talented and has been very productive as a player. Defensively, whether its Tyson Jackson or (Kirston) Pittman, the pass rushers are good. (Darry) Beckwith is a very good player and All-SEC. They have great specialists, in terms of their kicker and punter. (Trindon) Holliday is as explosive as anybody you are ever going to see. This is an outstanding team. We are certainly going to have to play our best football to have any opportunity to be successful and that's what we are going to try to focus on and want to try to do."
In answers to questions:
On match-up between Alabama receivers and LSU cornerbacks:
"The big thing for us is they play good team defense. They do a good job of rushing and pushing the pocket and we're going to have to do a good job in protection. Our route runners are certainly going to have to separate from their man-to-man coverage and we're going to have to do that a little more consistently. When people play man-to-man, it's a little smaller area to throw the ball into and we are going to have to throw it accurately and be able to catch it and make plays. I think the most important thing against a defensive team like this is creating balance and eliminating negative plays, so you don't get behind in the down and distance so they won't pin their ears back and just come get you, which is what they have been very good and create a lot of problems for people."
On John Parker Wilson's improvement:
"I think more of it is stability on his part and managing and handling situations, being more confident and having a better understanding. We've talked about this quite a bit of his business approach of what he is doing. He is a very competitive guy and very emotional. To be able to kind of stay in his zone and make good choices and decisions and make business decisions has probably been the biggest difference in his play. I think it's probably minimized his bad plays and certainly affected his good plays and certainly helped us offensively by not having as many negative plays. I think that's critical to the success of our offensive team."
On playing well in hostile environments this season:
"I think it shows maturity on our team's part to be able to go into some of these difficult places to play, and I think every place in the SEC is a tough place to play. It shows a lot of maturity on their part to stay focused and execute to do the things they need to do and not be affected by the external factors in the game, which is the crowd, and I know this will be one of the most challenging that we have this year to continue to be able to do that."
On the maturity of this team with only nine scholarship seniors:
"Maturity doesn't always just come with age, but I do think the nine seniors on this team show tremendous leadership. I think some of the younger players on the team have shown a lot of maturity, in the way they've been able to handle the circumstance that they're in. A couple of freshmen have shown a lot of maturity. A couple of sophomore players have shown a lot of maturity. I think it's critical that we stay focused that way as a team and not let other things affect that. As I said before, we are trying to develop a kind of an elite attitude in terms of expectation and what want to try and accomplish. That does not happen overnight. That doesn't happen today, but I think there is a pretty good buy-in with most of the players here, relative to what is expected of them, what they can give and what they are willing to do to help the team try and be successful and I think that is the most important that has contributed to that maturity."
On reception you expect Saturday and being on the other sideline at Tiger Stadium:
"Again, regardless of the reception and regardless of anything, my focus is on our team and the job that we have to do. We can't control any of that stuff and we're not concerned about it and we have to stay focused on the task at hand and do a good job for our team. I think it's what our players deserve and we are going to do everything in our power to stay focused on to do. This is a part of the game and fans are emotional. We respect their fans and they are great fans and it's certainly nothing personal between us and them, certainly not form my standpoint. I think our players need to understand they need to stay focused on the task at hand because they have a very good team and how we play on the field is going to be the most important thing to affect the outcome of the game."
Saban said his decision to come to Alabama followed his two years as a head coach of the Miami Dolphins, an experience that (among other things) reiterated his love of being a college coach. And, he said, "We enjoy The University of Alabama. It's a special place with great support and where the players respond. It has been a great experience for us."
There was one question Saban didn't want to try to handle. What will wife Terry be doing on the trip?
The coach said he didn't know, but he hoped that she "wouldn't be doing too much shopping. She's got some TripleA shopping buddies down there."
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