As terrible as the performance against Louisiana-Monroe was, it was not an isolated event. In reality, far from an aberration, the performance against the Warhawks was a mere continuation of poor performances against obviously inferior opponents that has persisted for the past decade. Generally speaking, when teams play obviously inferior opponents they win big without breaking a sweat. Not the Crimson Tide, however. Far from blowouts, Alabama consistently plays inferior opponents and comes out with the all the enthusiasm and excitement of a yard sale on their way to either outright losses or wins that go right down to the wire that come as the result of sloppy play.
The following is an incomplete list of such games.
1997 Kentucky: Alabama traveled to Lexington as a big favorite after a heartbreaking loss to Arkansas, and were defeated by a 5-6 Kentucky team that was annihilated on several occasions throughout the year. Tim Couch had a huge night, throwing for over 350 yards and four touchdowns. Kentucky led by ten late in the third, and while the Tide rallied to take the lead, it fell apart late allowing the Wildcats to force overtime and ultimately win the game in the extra period.
1997 Louisiana Tech: After beating a Tuberville-led Ole Miss team in Oxford to improve 4-3, Alabama looked to win with ease and move to 5-3 with a victory over Louisiana Tech for homecoming. 'Bama came in the big favorite, but the Bulldogs controlled the game. They took a 10-0 lead early on, and never trailed. Tim Rattay, then an unproven sophomore, lit up 'Bama with 350+ yards through the air and three touchdowns. Tech led by thirteen late when Chad Goss scored to narrow the gap, but the onside kick failed and Tech won 26-20.
1998 BYU: In the season opener against Brigham Young, the Crimson Tide came in as a big favorite in the first game of the newly-expanded Bryant-Denny Stadium. Early on, things went as planned as the Tide jumped out to a 24-7 lead in the second quarter. Then things fell apart as BYU rallied to force a tie. Penalties killed the Tide (over 100 yards worth), and we have up a lot of sacks (five). 'Bama only broke away in the end due to a career night from Shaun Alexander as it got a narrow seven point victory.
1998 East Carolina: Alabama came into the game against the Pirates at 3-2 and huge favorites. Early on things looked great as Alabama jumped out to a 21-0 lead at halftime. But the Pirates came roaring back in the second half, scoring 22 points. The Tide edged out a narrow one-point victory, and the margin was created when we blocked an ECU extra point and returned it for two points. Had that once in a lifetime play not occurred, we would have fallen 24-20. We did not score an offensive point in the second half.
1999 Louisiana Tech: Alabama came in 2-0 and hefty favorites, but Tech picked up where they left off two years prior, leading the entire first half. Alabama had a big third quarter to take the lead, but Tim Rattay led his Bulldogs back down to take the lead back. From there, Alabama rallied again to take the lead, and could have put the game away late but could not punch the ball into the end zone and had to settle for a field goal. That left the Tide with a 28-22 lead, and Tech won the game with a last second 28-yard heave to the end zone by Brian Stallworth, the back-up quarterback.
2000 Central Florida: Despite a disastrous start to the season, we nevertheless came into the game against UCF a favorite and we should have won easily. The game was close early, though, as we led 24-17 at halftime, but UCF had a huge third quarter and took a 37-24 lead into the fourth. 'Bama fought hard in the fourth to retake the lead 38-37 with a mere 2:27 left. The Alabama defense couldn't hold, though, as UCF marched 59 yards down the field to set up a game-winning field goal with three seconds remaining.
2002 Middle Tennessee: Alabama came into the 2002 season opener with a four game winning streak and as a massive favorite over the Blue Raiders. Early on it was an annihilation as Alabama jumped out to a 22-0 first quarter lead. And then it all fell apart. With a 32-27 game late, MTSU gave us the break we needed when their QB stared down a short route and then-freshman Freddie Roach intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown. Still, MTSU quickly rallied for another score, and 'Bama only secured a victory after getting the onsides kick and picking up a crucial first down when Santonio Beard picked up four yards on a third and four.
2003 Northern Illinois: After almost knocking off the #1 ranked Oklahoma Sooners, Alabama came into a creampuff game against Northern Illinois as a huge favorite. The Crimson Tide were in for a rude awakening though, as Michael Turner controlled our defense with a stout rushing attack. Alabama trailed 19-9 with under six minutes to play in the game when Shaud Williams made a huge play and ran 56 yards for a touchdown, making it a close one. Alabama then stopped NIU, but couldn't do anything with the ball once we got it back. After an incomplete pass on fourth down, we turned the ball over one downs and NIU secured the upset.
2006 Duke: Alabama came in against Duke as big favorites, and most expected a route. The Blue Devils were in the midst of an 0-12 season and they were about as weak of an opponent as you could get. Someone forgot to tell the Tide they had to show up. The players came out dead, and Duke took a 14-10 lead into halftime. Alabama rallied a bit late and had 16-14 with less than five minutes to play until the Tide finally put it away.
2006 FIU: The schedule brought a second patsy, as the FIU Panthers came in on their way to an 0-12 season. Moreover, they had almost fifteen players suspended for the brawl against Miami the week before. Alabama should have blown FIU out of the water, but went into halftime with a mere 10-3 game. A memorable play occurred when the Tide attempted to convert a fourth and goal from inside the one, only to be blown backwards off the line of scrimmage as yet another play in the vaunted "Jumbo" package failed. Alabama slowly pulled away thanks mainly to terrible play from FIU, but the harsh truth remained that the game was far closer than it should have been.
2007 Houston: The Cougars were a solid team, but nothing particularly special -- though they are 7-4, take note of their 56-7 thrashing at the hands of Tulsa -- and Alabama came in as easy favorites. Early on the Tide dominated, and then it all fell apart. Though we had a chance to put the game away late, that went away with a John Parker Wilson interception. Houston, trailing 30-24, marched down the field and had it inside the Alabama ten yard line with a handful of seconds left. A jump ball was thrown into the endzone -- three Alabama defenders, three Houston receivers -- and fortunately an Alabama defender came down with the football.
2007 Louisiana-Monroe: Does anything else really need to be said about this one?
Again, while some would like to think of the Louisiana-Monroe debacle as a one-time occurrence, it is in fact far from such. We've seen this movie and its endings so many times it's hard to even remember. It is something that has persisted for a decade now, persisted through four separate coaching staffs. We play teams that we should annihilate, and then we come out, usually after a poor week in practice, with no intensity or enthusiasm, and suddenly an easy win turns into a squeaker win or, at worse, a loss. We've seen it happen for ten years now, and we saw it happen yet ago just two days ago. Obviously, it's not something that is going to be changed overnight.
Add this to another long list of culture-related problems that Saban must fix in Tuscaloosa.