TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Even Alabama’s No. 7 ranking can’t conceal some chinks in Crimson Tide armor that once seemed impenetrable. Special teams muffs, turnovers and even problems running the ball have been among them.
Coach Nick Saban can work on those issues, but he can’t change the fact that a 14-13 victory over Arkansas causes more concern than celebration among his fan base.
“Everybody’s got such a high expectation of what our team should be,” Saban said Monday. “I was just happy to see our players be happy to be playing the game and winning. It really, if you want to know the truth about it, (ticks) me off when I talk to people that have this expectation like they are disappointed that we only won the game 14-13 and in the way we played.
“Really, that’s frustrating. You want to talk about what’s frustrating, that’s frustrating to me for our players, who play with a lot of heart in the game.”
True, no team faces higher expectations each season than Alabama (5-1, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) — though Alabama has set the bar itself. But the Tide still can accomplish its goals of winning a league title and reach the College Football Playoff.
However, the past three games haven’t been pretty, including a loss to No. 3 Ole Miss. A win over Florida and a loss to the Rebels were both filled with turnovers and penalties.
Now, Alabama faces Texas A&M (5-2, 2-2) after just surviving against a team it had dominated with back to back 52-0 wins.
“Everyone wants us to win 60-0, and that’s just not possible,” Tide offensive tackle Austin Shepherd said. “Arkansas is really, really good. I mean, everyone should be happy with a win, and you can’t win every game by 100 points so you’ve just got to be happy with this one.”
Happy or not, there’s no sugarcoating the bad aspects of Alabama’s performance.
The Tide fumbled three punt returns and a kick return against Arkansas, a game that wasn’t settled until after Landon Collins’ interception in the final minutes.
Playing without injured center Ryan Kelly and backup tailback Kenyan Drake, the Tide couldn’t get anything going on the ground either. Alabama’s 66 rushing yards matched the fewest since the 2010 loss to South Carolina.
The Tide produced the same total against Colorado State last season and managed just 227 total yards.
Tailback T.J. Yeldon had just 45 yards on 16 carries, and Derrick Henry ran seven times for 25 yards. Shepherd blames it on the blockers, including himself.
“Personally, I thought I played terrible,” Shepherd said. “I kind of take responsibility for it. I don’t think any of us had a good game. Probably the worst game we’ve played as a unit just to be straight up. I mean, I thought we were prepared. We just kind of didn’t execute like we wanted to.”
Saban still found much to praise, more from the attitude of his team than the execution. He called it a great win because the Tide displayed “a will-not-be-denied attitude.” He said some expectations for a wider margin stems from a lack of respect from fans or media for the opponent, while the coaches expected it to be a tight game.
Saban also said Alabama needs to be better controlling the line of scrimmage, cutting down on mental errors defensively and playing better on special teams.
“I know a lot of people would say it was ugly and they want to write the team off because of how we played, whether it was on special teams, offense, defense at times,” Saban said. “Because the execution wasn’t there and at times we didn’t play smart. But those things can be improved on and those things can be fixed.
“We expected the game to be exactly like it was. That’s what we expected as coaches.”