TUSCALOOSA, Ala.—Never have two 25-point victories been the source of so much consternation and hand-wringing among a fanbase in college football.
The deliberation over Alabama’s 35-10 win over Virginia Tech and 31-6 victory over Colorado State has sounded something like this:
Is the offensive line doomed? Can the secondary cover anybody? What’s wrong with T.J. Yeldon? Will we ever convert a third down? Is AJ McCarron distracted by a rumored breakup with Katherine Webb (h/t Dan Carson of B/R)?
On just about any other team, a 3-0 record with a road win over Texas A&M sandwiched between the two aforementioned wins would be cause for celebration.
But Alabama is not any other team.
Winning three of the last four BCS National Championships has caused expectations to swell to enormous levels in Tuscaloosa. Fans expect 50-0 wins, at least, every week, even against top-tier teams.
And the expectations appear to have seeped into the Alabama program.
“Everybody has just sort of gotten overwhelmed with expectations,” coach Nick Saban said Wednesday. “It's been my word from the beginning of time that this is a different team. This is a new team. They gotta create their own identity by what they do and how they play.”
The message is constantly preached inside the Alabama football complex. Saban has obviously proven that his system can succeed. But the hard part is getting players to buy in, especially after most of them are only used to winning championships.
So it helps when the message comes from someone who isn’t a coach.
After the Colorado State game, senior linebacker C.J. Mosley stood up and addressed the team. He was tired of all of the “mental errors” that Alabama had in its first three weeks, especially on defense.
“That's what leadership is,” Saban said of Mosley taking control. “'Look man, it's real simple. I feel what you feel. I've felt it before, but here's what I find out about it.' It's called experience to help lead people through difficult times. We all have them. And I think the older players on the team, it's good to see them step up.”
The message seemed to get through more quickly coming from a player rather than a coach. Especially when it’s a senior like Mosley, who is usually on the quiet side and has seen firsthand what happens when complacency sets in.
“Other players listen to other players,” junior Jalston Fowler said. “Some of them just need to buy into what the other players are saying. Most of them buy in, but you have to be the right person. You have to be somebody that everybody looks up to and listens to. I think everybody is starting to buy in.”
Redshirt junior Austin Shepherd said things like that happen all the time—dips in consistency or a rise in complacency. It just doesn’t get played out in public like it did this week.
At the risk of trying too hard to find a narrative where there isn’t one, the words of Mosley and a few of Alabama’s other leaders—McCarron spoke up as well—might represent a turning point in the season.
The challenge this year, more than any of Alabama’s past seasons under Saban, is just as much internal as it is external. The Crimson Tide have proved they are better than any team in the country. They proved it last year, the year before that and in 2009. They also had a pretty good case in 2010, but mental errors at inopportune moments caused Alabama to lose three games.
That 2010 run fueled the next two years’ title runs. 2011 was about getting back to the championship level of 2009, and 2012 was about making sure 2010 didn’t happen again.
So 2013 is uncharted waters.
The only team that can beat Alabama is itself. And the Crimson Tide have looked very vulnerable to themselves so far. A performance like Alabama had against Colorado State could be costly against an explosive team against Ole Miss, LSU or whomever Alabama would play in a potential SEC Championship Game.
Saban knows what’s going on, and he’s seen it since the beginning of the season. He was preaching the “new season, new team” mantra all the way back at SEC media days. But players recognizing it too might be more helpful than anything he can say.
So far, it seems like the message has sunk in.
“Yeah, these last two practices, Monday and [Tuesday], there's been a lot more energy and people have been going at it,” Shepherd said. “It was good what they did after the game."