TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Nick Saban could see it coming as early as Monday this past week, even though the University of Alabama football team didn‘t formally hold practice that day.
It was an extra rest day for the Crimson Tide. Saban likes to give them periodically during the regular season in an effort to avoid fatigue, but also because he could look ahead to what’s coming: rival Auburn and the subsequent SEC Championship Game.
The problem is, his players could too, and they played like it at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday night.
“That wasn‘t probably our best effort,” Saban said to open his postgame press conference after Alabama defeated Chattanooga 31-3.
That was an understatement. For the first time this season, the reigning national champions played like a complacent team, especially during the first half. The numbers didn‘t show it, but the passing game was inconsistent, the right side of the offensive line had problems and Alabama finished with a significant deficit in time of possession (34:06 to 25:54).
Yes, Alabama had a letdown, but it might end up being a good thing.
Every other game this season, the Crimson Tide either had something to prove or something on the line. Alabama (11-0) was ranked No. 1 in the preseason, has played a brutal schedule that included five ranked opponents away from Bryant-Denny Stadium, and had a four-game stretch against No. 20, No. 11, No. 6 and No. 13.
Here it was facing a much smaller team from the Football Championship Subdivision, albeit a good one, having already clinched the SEC West title. If anything, the letdown came at the right time, as the odds of there being another appear slim.
Give credit to Chattanooga, which finished its regular season 8-3 and can now turn its attention to the FCS playoffs. It came in and at least matched Alabama’s execution for a half.
It trailed 14-3 at halftime, but the last two times the Mocs visited they were down 35-0 at the break in 2009 and 28-0 in 2013.
“I thought our guys played hard with a lot of energy and excitement,” Chattanooga head coach Russ Huesman said. “It was really physical out there.”
That’s about all he could ask for. The size and talent difference was so great that Alabama could have executed its power game and run over the Mocs all night. But it didn‘t.
In games like this, Alabama prefers to use more of its base offense and work on the passing game while not giving anything away for its next opponent. With the players not being zeroed in, though, Chattanooga became the first opponent to have a lead since Texas A&M was ahead 14-13 on Oct. 22.
“I am a little embarrassed by the way we played this half,” Saban told the sideline reporter at halftime.
He then went into the locker room and, predictably, let his team have it.
“I don’t know if I should tell you that,” Saban revealed when asked what he’d said. “I don’t know if I can tell you that. But I can tell you part of it.
“I said, ‘Do you believe me now?’ Because I’ve been telling them all week. … The rest of it I think we better bleep out.”
Whatever Saban said obviously worked because Alabama played significantly better during the second half, after a good portion of the stands emptied due to the cold conditions. Granted, his players downplayed the tirade, but even they noticed a change in the team’s performance.
“He was angry,” senior defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson said. “But he’s always angry.”
“We re-evaluated,” offensive lineman Ross Pierschbacher offered.
Perhaps that’s the difference between Alabama and every other college football program in the nation. When most teams have a subpar day at this point of the season, they can’t compensate, even against unranked opponents.
For example, the teams seeded second, third and fourth by the College Football Playoff committee last week all subsequently lost. This week, No. 5 Louisville, after loudly complaining about its place in the rankings, was blown out at Houston.
“It happens all the time in college football,” Saban said.
But not to his team.
Led by sophomore safety Ronnie Harrison, who had a game-high 11 tackles, including eight solo stops, Alabama’s defense barely gave up anything after Chattanooga drove 50 yards on 10 plays and kicked a 47-yard field goal on its first possession.
It crossed midfield just once more the rest of the game. Alabama notched eight tackles for a loss and recovered two fumbles that led to points.
Not only is Alabama the only Power 5 team that hasn‘t stumbled this season or showed any real flaws, it’s won 65 straight games against unranked teams. The streak goes all the way back to the regular-season finale at Auburn in 2007.
Chattanooga was also just the fifth unranked team Alabama faced this season. It defeated the first four by a combined score of 171-19.
So it’s not time for Alabama fans to panic—unless the team doesn‘t show more urgency during next week’s Iron Bowl. Otherwise, the Crimson Tide’s biggest disappointments have been the loss of safety Eddie Jackson (leg fracture), and punter JK Scott’s being inexcusably snubbed for the Ray Guy Award.
“I didn‘t really pay attention to it,” Scott diplomatically said.
Meanwhile, this was the 46th time Alabama had played as No. 1 under Saban, tying him with Woody Hayes for the most ever by a coach with one program. It was also his 41st win in that circumstance, topping Hayes and Bobby Bowden for the most ever.
Saban is in his 10th year with the Crimson Tide, while Bowden was at Florida State for 34, and Hayes at Ohio State for 28. He’s also just four wins away from winning his sixth national championship and fifth with Alabama.
No one’s better at dealing with the big picture or when a team can use a wakeup call. Consequently, expect a refocused team the next two weeks as it tries to stay perfect and enter the playoff as the top-seeded favorite.
“Look, I’m proud of our team,” Saban said. “Our team’s won 11 games this season so far, had great competitive character, had to play some really tough games in some really tough places and came through when they needed to.
“I like the competitive character of this team. Maybe we weren‘t perfect, but we still won 31-3.”
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