It was late in the first half of the Alabama-Arkansas game, and the television announcers calling it for ESPN had seen enough.
“[Alabama] look awesome,” play-by-play man Joe Tessitore said.
“They do,” analyst Todd Blackledge agreed.
But then the defense buckled and gave up a last-minute score before the break, so when University of Alabama head coach Nick Saban stopped and talked to the radio reporter for the Crimson Tide Sports Network on his way to his locker room, he had a different take.
“I’m very disappointed in the way we’re playing defense,” the frustrated coach said. “We’ve done a great job on offense, making a lot of big plays and scoring a lot of points, but the defense just isn’t playing very well at all, not playing fundamental football in the back end, not good coverage, not executing what we need to do, busted a couple of coverages.
“We need to play a lot better.”
The score at that point was 35-17, en route to a 49-30 victory that will almost certainly keep the Crimson Tide atop the polls. Despite the miscues, Alabama still dominated the No. 16 team in its home stadium.
Alabama’s defensive front seven was all over Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen, notching six sacks while creating five turnovers, returning two of those for touchdowns.
If it continues to post those kinds of defensive numbers, there are few if any teams that’ll be able to stop the Crimson Tide from getting to the College Football Playoff again.
But in many ways, this was the kind of midseason win Saban likes because Alabama also made numerous blunders, even when jumping out to a big early lead. Consequently, he won’t have any trouble getting his players’ attention during the next week or so of practice.
The running backs lost fumbles that the Razorbacks recovered at their own 1- and 3-yard lines. Alabama freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts had a pass picked off when he was hit as he threw, and the offense scored only once in the second half.
“We just couldn’t get off of the field in the second half,” Saban said. “We never had the ball. There’s one point we only had the ball 10 plays in the second half. Time of possession was crazy in the other direction, but wasn’t really the offense. It was us not being able to get off of the field on third down and making the plays we’re capable of making.”
The pass defense yielded 400 yards, a big chunk of which had to do with coverage breakdowns and miscues. Those really get to the coach as the cornerbacks are his position group during practices, and at times he was fuming on the sideline.
Granted, sophomore cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick made up for a first-half gaffe by setting a school record with a 100-yard interception return to complete Alabama’s scoring. It was his third pick of the night, which tied another Crimson Tide mark, but those aren’t the kinds of things Saban will be emphasizing next week.
He won’t be talking about how Fitzpatrick’s first pick ended Allen’s streak of attempts without an interception at 146, second-longest in Arkansas history. Instead, he’ll emphasize that Hurts’ interception was his first in 139 attempts and why it shouldn’t have happened.
“We score a couple of times on defense, but there’s a lot of things we need to get better at,” Saban continued. “It will be about what kind of conviction we have to keep working hard and improve the things we need to improve. We’re not where we want to be in all facets of the game.”
It’s a glass half-full, half-empty thing, but it works for this coach and this team.
Alabama’s remaining schedule is the same way because it can now be viewed in a variety of ways.
On the one hand, Alabama may be getting Tennessee at the right time next week after the No. 9 Volunteers (5-1, 2-1 SEC) had their luck run out in double-overtime at Texas A&M. The players looked spent both emotionally and physically following the 45-38 loss.
Additionally, the Vols’ injury issues now appear to be a lot worse. Numerous players had problems Saturday afternoon, including defensive tackle Danny O’Brien, who was taken off the field on a stretcher following a scary helmet-to-helmet hit. Offensive linemen Dylan Wiesman and Jashon Robertson and linebacker Cortez McDowell all left the game and did not return.
The opposite could be true for the subsequent opponent, No. 8 Texas A&M (6-0, 4-0 SEC), which can recuperate during next week’s bye before its potential matchup of undefeated teams at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Plus, Alabama (6-0, 3-0) still has to face LSU and Auburn, which are playing better of late, in November.
Nevertheless, the core parts of Alabama’s game are impressive and still looking to get better. That includes the run blocking, the versatile freshman quarterback, the run defense and the pass rushing as Allen took a pounding.
“We definitely can’t have a game where we get sacked six times and expect to win it,” Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said during his postgame press conference. “But it was kind of a result of getting down by a few scores.”
Factor in the knack the Crimson Tide has developed in finding ways to score, and it’s looking like the league’s most complete team—one that can make the playoff for a third straight year.
Specifically, with linebacker Tim Williams’ 23-yard fumble return for a touchdown in the second quarter, and Fitzpatrick also finding the end zone, Alabama’s defense has scored seven times this season. No other team has more than four (Ohio State).
Additionally, Alabama has scored at least one touchdown on defense or special teams in each game this season. It’s a streak at eight, dating back to the College Football Playoff semifinal versus Michigan State on Dec. 31, 2015.
The tally: Three interceptions, four fumble returns, three punt returns and a kickoff return.
That’s why no other team in the Southeastern Conference can measure up, as Alabama is still the envy of the league.
“I think you get to a certain level where you have a base pool of players that you know are developed in a way and recruited in a way that you know they have these certain talents,” Bielema said. “You have a lot of them, and you have coaches that are very, very good. That combination and the ability to roll people through and have the depth that you do, it’s a very good position to be in, one we’re going to strive to get to every day.”
Unless something dramatically changes over the next two months, it’ll take a playoff team from another conference to counter the Crimson Tide. Right now, no one in the SEC can.
Quotes were provided by the University of Alabama and the University of Arkansas.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.
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