TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — As the reigning national champion, everyone knows the Alabama Crimson Tide football team has the rings. It also has a wresting-style championship belt, which gets held up on the sideline during plays and goes to the defensive player who created the latest turnover.
Alabama is now beginning to find its swagger as well, which is bad news for everyone else. It’s not to the level that Bryant-Denny Stadium should add “The Champ Is Here” by Jadakiss to its pregame song mix, but Alabama began October looking like it’s ready to roll up its sleeves.
While numerous other teams, both in the Southeastern Conference and nationally, were getting exposed, Alabama posted another solid win—this time against Kentucky on Saturday night, 34-6.
Three SEC teams may still be undefeated, but the No. 1 Crimson Tide have staked their claim as the team to beat.
It’s not because Kentucky didn’t score a touchdown and managed just 89 passing yards and 72 rushing yards. It’s the attitude Alabama is beginning to play with.
“That’s too many,” junior linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton said about the yards allowed. “With everyone executing, they shouldn’t have any yards.”
That’s a little extreme, yet this defense is backing up that sentiment and playing to its potential. With its seventh non-offensive touchdown of the season, which leads the nation, Alabama’s defense alone outscored Kentucky.
Led by senior defensive end Jonathan Allen, who tied Hamilton for the team lead in tackles with eight, Alabama notched nine tackles for a loss, forced three fumbles and was credited with six quarterback hurries.
To put that in perspective, Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson only attempted 22 passes, and the Wildcats were often in max protection, with seven players assigned to stop the pass-rushers.
“That was one of the most physical games I’ve played since I’ve been in college,” Allen said. “I give Kentucky a lot of credit.”
The turning point wasn’t a defensive play, though. It was when Alabama seemed to suddenly get serious with 12:20 left in the second quarter. At that point, Alabama had an edge in total yards, 94-45, but the score stood at 3-3.
Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin called seven straight runs, six by Joshua Jacobs, and all to the left behind tackle Cam Robinson. With the true freshman running back plunging into the end zone from one yard out, the Crimson Tide took control.
Then it was the defense’s turn. On 3rd-and-5 at midfield, Johnson was caught from behind for a sack, with reserve linebacker Rashaan Evans stripping the ball loose. Safety Ronnie Harrison picked it up and went 55 yards for the touchdown.
“That was a big momentum swing,” head coach Nick Saban said. “We wanted to attack the ball, especially with the quarterback. We thought he was a little loose with the ball.”
Alabama outgained Kentucky in the third quarter, 202-29, and 173 of that was in the passing game, which is still coming together. Sophomore wide receiver Calvin Ridley got hot, registering 11 catches for 174 yards and two touchdowns.
“I was pleased with the way our guys came out in the second half and played,” Saban said. “I challenged them a little bit at halftime. I don’t think we imposed our will in the first half like we could have or should have.”
The other impressive aspect of the victory was that Alabama seemed to shrug off a pair of distractions that had the potential to be problematic this past week. In addition to reserve quarterback Blake Barnett’s sudden transfer, senior linebacker Tim Williams was arrested for carrying a pistol without a permit.
Williams was suspended for the first half and primarily used as a pass-rusher in the second. Playing like he had something to prove, he finished with four tackles—three for a loss, including a sack—a forced fumble and two quarterback hurries. With Alabama’s lead mounting, Kentucky stopped throwing.
“We’re getting momentum,” Evans said. “As a team, we’re gradually getting our chemistry.”
One has to wonder if Tennessee feels the same way after it shocked Georgia on the final play. Or Texas A&M after struggling against South Carolina without defensive end Myles Garrett.
While most people will look at the upcoming schedule as possibly being the key to Alabama’s title chances this season, in reality, it might have been these past two weeks.
After opening with two of its first three games against ranked opponents, facing Kent State and Kentucky back-to-back offered Alabama a chance to get a lot of little things right, end position competitions and build continuity.
The importance of that can’t be overstated.
Alabama has already played 13 true freshmen this season, including a few in crucial spots, like quarterback Jalen Hurts and right tackle Jonah Williams. Moreover, 11 different players had already made their first career starts when Jacobs joined them due to sophomore Damien Harris’ high-ankle sprain.
Jacobs notched 100 yards and one touchdown on 16 carries.
While a lot of other Week 5 games were more drama-filled, No. 1 Alabama didn’t need a Hail Mary (Tennessee) or a game-winning field goal (North Carolina and Baylor), and they didn’t see time expire (Utah) or watch a player go out of bounds on fourth down (Louisville).
Alabama simply showed it’s beginning to develop that crucial intangible required to make a title run. You can call it what you will: moxie, chutzpah, grit or determination. It came just in time, too, as the schedule kicks up a notch with games at Arkansas and Tennessee and versus Texas A&M before the bye at the end of the month.
“We’re just playing with confidence,” Allen said.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.
Read more Alabama Crimson Tide Football news on BleacherReport.com