This time last year, the No. 1 Crimson Tide was off to a blazing start, including wins like 59-0 over Vanderbilt and 66-3 to Ole Miss when the first hiccup of the season happened. It wasn’t a loss, but Alabama struggled to beat Texas A&M, leading to the now-famous quote from the coach about how the widespread praise had been like “rat poison” to his team.
With No. 1 Alabama hosting No. 22 Texas A&M at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday it might still be his biggest problem.
“It’s like climbing a mountain,” he said. “The higher you go, the more challenging it gets and the greater the focus needs to be and the more treacherous it can be. This is the best team we’ve played so far, so hopefully we’ll be able to continue to improve and have the right focus.
“So, I guess in a different way, trying to be really diplomatic, I’m sort of saying the same thing.”
Alabama (3-0, 1-0 SEC) is looking awfully good so far, especially offensively, but the emergence of sophomore quarterback Tua Tagovailoa isn’t the biggest change in this matchup from 2017, when the Crimson Tide pulled out a 27-19 victory at Kyle Field.
Since then, Texas A&M hired former Saban assistant coach Jimbo Fisher, hoping he can do the same thing as for Florida State, win a national championship.
Although the expectation is obviously there, especially since Texas A&M played then-No. 2 Clemson close two weeks ago (losing 28-26), Fisher is quick to dismiss such talk for now.
“We’re just trying to get better tomorrow,” he said. “That’s what we need to focus on. We have to learn how to practice, learn how to prepare and get ready to play in the next game.
“It doesn’t matter who you play, it’s how you play. We’ve got to set our own standard and look in the mirror to the standards we want. If you do that, then you can worry about somebody else. Most of the time you quit worrying about them because you can take care of yourself.”
It also doesn’t help the Aggies that Saban is still undefeated against his former assistant coaches at 12-0. The list includes Fisher, as Alabama sent Florida State into a tailspin last year with a 24-7 victory at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
The Crimson Tide has also easily dispatched their first three opponents this season: Louisville 51-14, Arkansas State 57-7 and Ole Miss 62-7. But this will be the first ranked foe for Alabama, which had a lot of turnover, both in players and assistant coaches, during the offseason.
“They’ve got really good players in a lot of positions on both sides of the ball and special teams,” Saban said. “Obviously that was pretty much the indication when they played Clemson. Probably had, arguably, a lot of opportunities to win the game and at the end it didn’t really work out for them.”
With lopsided wins against Northwestern State (59-7) and ULM (48-10), Texas A&M is fifth in the nation in total offense, averaging 596.3 yards per game. It’s one of four offenses that rank in the top 25 in both rushing and passing (Houston, Ohio State and Oklahoma State the others).
Junior running back Trayveon Williams leads the SEC in rushing (133.0 per game), while sophomore quarterback Kellen Mond is averaging 274.0 and has six touchdown passes.
“They’ve got great balance,” Saban said.
The real match may be on the other side of the ball, as the Aggies (2-1, 0-0 SEC) returned a lot of defensive starters but have a new defensive coordinator, Mike Elko, who was last at Notre Dame. Consequently, Alabama has had to look at game film from Texas A&M this year and last, Notre Dame and even a little of Florida State.
“They’re really solid within their scheme, and they also have a lot of veteran guys, a lot of experience,” Alabama junior left tackle Jonah Williams said. “I know they have a ton of returning starters on defense. At middle linebacker they have a fifth-year senior, No. 42 (Otaro Alaka), (Tyrel) Dodson, No. 46 (Landis Durham). They have a bunch of different players who have a lot of experience across the board and being an SEC defense, they’ve played against plenty of good run offenses.
“So, I think they pose a good challenge for us. We like to take on challenges.”
Tagovailoa is second nationally in passer efficiency and hasn’t even played a full game yet, with junior quarterback Jalen Hurts also getting significant playing time.
Alabama is loaded at both running back and wide receiver, and its ability to sustain long drives may only be exceeded by the quick-strike ability of the receiving corps. It’s led by sophomore Jerry Jeudy, who has already scored six touchdowns, one more than first-round draft pick Calvin Ridley tallied last year.
“They’ve opened it up more,” Fisher said.