In September, Saban made a point of berating local reporters for going overboard with praise for the Crimson Tide's thorough, 41-14 rout over Michigan on opening night, and of reminding his players to focus on improving their own pace as they approached the next hurdle rather than how it stacks up against the competition. During practices that week, beat writers reported that "more four-letter words were flying… than we heard the entire month of August," and "it would be easier to list the players who aren't getting yelled at." This was days after a blowout win over a top-10 opponent, in preparation for a visit from Western Kentucky. It was also the sentiment of a man who has experience at the front of the pack, and knows how fleeting those moments can be. Some of Saban's older players do, too, from the last time Alabama was ranked No. 1 in the regular season: October 2010, on the heels of back-to-back wins over No. 10 Arkansas and No. 7 Florida, the latter a brutal, 31-6 demolition from which the Gators only just now seem to be recovering, two years later. Then, as now, Bama was the defending national champion, and was also riding the nation's longest winning streak at 19 games. Then, as now, they were attempting to replace a majority of starters off the nation's best defense with a similarly talented but alarmingly green crop of up-and-comers, and then, as now, they appeared to have done so successfully. Then, as now, certain members of the local media could barely be restrained from punching the Tide's ticket to the BCS title game. Now, of course, we know that the irresistible juggernaut bound for another crown was just days away from a stunning defeat at South Carolina, and would lose twice more over the next two months, against LSU and Auburn, both times as a slight favorite. By December, the same team that seemed utterly invincible five games into the season had fallen all the way to 15th in the polls after blowing a 24-0 lead against its most bitter rival on its own field.
Shining stars: Mississippi State -- QB Tyler Russell. The junior is one of three QBs, along with Alabama's AJ McCarron, with at least 15 TD passes and one or zero interceptions. In three SEC games, Russell has completed 63 percent of his throws for 782 yards and seven TDs with no INTs. He's on pace to break single-season school records in every passing category. Alabama -- McCarron. He's thrown 249 passes without an interception and is completing nearly 69 percent of his throws. Over the last three games, McCarron and freshman WR Amari Cooper hooked up 19 times for 287 yards and four scores.
On Saturday, Alabama will face a team that’s as good at winning the turnover battle. Mississippi State ranks first nationally in turnover margin and hasn’t lost a game, either. In fact, if you want an indication of how important turnovers are in college football, consider this: The combined records of the top 12 teams nationally in turnover ratio is 79-4. Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said he learned as an NFL assistant coach how to put that into numbers his players could understand. He said a fumble or interception is worth about 3.7 points for you and takes away about 3.7 points from the other team. So one turnover can account for a swing of about one touchdown on the scoreboard. If that’s true, then three can turn a close game into a comfortable win. "In the NFL, they keep a lot of statistical data on a lot of things," Saban said. "That was one of the things that I thought was really interesting when you sort of can put a numerical value to the consequences of a turnover or getting a turnover. That’s something we’ve always done. "I think our players relate to that extremely well."
"I thought AJ played really well for us last year. It just went unnoticed with some of the other players that we had. He's a much more confident guy, a much more mature guy. He has to assume a different role from a leadership standpoint on our team. He's done a good job of executing at his position. It's important that the quarterback process information quickly and make good decisions. For the most part, he's done a good job of that. The fact that we've been able to have good balance on offense and be able to run and throw it is a real key for us." On the Heisman question: "We're always happy when our guys get recognition for what they do. Our focus is really on what we need to continue to do to play well with consistency and get him prepared to play this next week against Mississippi State."
This is the most balanced offense Mullen has had at Mississippi State. " I think our guys really understand what we're doing this year with what our goal is and they've really grown in the offense," Mullen said. "Playing a team like Alabama, you have to have a balance. They're the top defense in just about every category you can have in the nation. You're not going to beat them by just going all run, all pass. You've got to continually have balance. "You've got to try to run the ball whether you're having success or not. You've got to pound away and run the ball. You've got to take shots down the field and you've got to complete those shots when you have an opportunity to make a play. You've got to stay on the field on third down and convert and flip the field position."
"We haven't played our best football at home. We've really played our best football on the road, for whatever reasons. I've addressed that with the players," Saban said. "I'm hopeful that we'll have the kind of excitement and enthusiasm in the stadium that will help our players from an emotional standpoint and also make it difficult for them." Away from home, UA has dispatched a highly-ranked Michigan team at a neutral site, 41-14, hammered Arkansas 52-0, and beat both Missouri and Tennessee handily. Games at Bryant-Denny Stadium haven't exactly been nail-biters, but UA struggled offensively at times in a 35-0 win over Western Kentucky, and played its closest game of the season against Ole Miss, 33-14. Against the Las Vegas point spread, Alabama is 4-0 away from home and 0-3 at BDS. "I think there are a few more distractions at home than on the road, where it's kind of an us vs. them mentality," said center Barrett Jones. "... The cheers don't do as much for me, but I love the boos. I don't know. I don't know how that all factors in. Certainly, it seems, so far we haven't really played a complete home game. We're hoping to do that this game."
Along with Alabama, Southern Miss, Florida State and Miami, the Bulldogs were in Steen's final five when he made his college decision. Mississippi State had the homefield advantage, Steen said, but it wasn't enough. "They have a good team, good facility, closer to home," he said. "But when I came over here and the coaches were explaining legacy around here and the process, it kind of just drew me in and that’s when I decided to come here."
Saban can recall recruiting Russell well. "We thought he was a really good player," Saban said. "Nothing he's done has been a surprise to me. We thought he was a really talented guy, had a really good arm. Good athlete, smart guy, and he's certainly demonstrated all those things in term of the way he's played, and obviously the more he's played, the better he's gotten. Like most players, when they gain knowledge and experience, their consistency level goes up. He's certainly done a fantastic job for them this year."
"They have a big offensive line. They’ve got a really good scheme they run the ball with, and lots of multiples in terms of how they present it, how they try to confuse defensive players. (Perkins is) very quick, very instinctive as a runner. He does a really good job of executing and running the plays that they have. He’s tough. He runs behind his pads and is a hard guy to tackle."
"First of all, the guys who have contributed when they’re freshmen are guys who have showed the maturity to be able to develop," Saban said. "That’s probably one key ingredient in each one of those guys. Secondly, it speaks that we’ve been able to recruit some guys who are good enough players at certain positions to be able to contribute."
A visiting reporter from the United Kingdom asked Saban a question that typically makes his blood boil: How good is this year's Crimson Tide compared to others? Saban answered it rather politely. - "I think that there's still a lot of football left to play. I think the full body of work that you do determines sort of what your legacy is as a team. We have some really tough games coming up starting this weekend. IF we can get through that gauntlet, then I think this team will have proven one way or the other what their legacy should be as a team. "The race may be 200 meters. We're probably at about the 140. It'd be nice if it was only a 140-meter race, but it's not. So we've got everybody running on our heels, so you've got to finish and you've got to finish the right way and finish strong."
"It's a big time game, I think for both programs," Smith said. "Two good teams playing head-to-head and it's going to be a battle for four quarters. Being 8-0 is what our focus is. The buzz really doesn't matter because the only opinion that matters is in-house program." Smith, who has been battling injury all season, is ready to go and looks forward to playing a complete game. "You still have to have the same focus and intensity to play any game you play. It is a big game, biggest game we've played all year," Jackson said. "You just have to focus on one game at a time. Just win one game at a time, that's all we can do."
TN: If you're the opposing coach, how are you attacking Alabama?
Weidl: That's the thing man, it's tough. It's like pick your poison with these guys. To me, I take my chances. Unless you have a defensive line like LSU, you have to take some chances. You have to take some risks, whether it's putting the defensive line in twists or slants, bringing some run game blitzes on early downs. Bring pressure and force McCarron to continue beating you with his arm. I think sitting back and playing traditionally, you're going to get gashed in the run game. Taking risks is what you're going to have to do and hope you can force turnovers against that offense. On the offensive side of the ball, I don't know if there's a guy you can attack. They don't have a dominant Marcell Dareus on the defensive line. They rotate and that sticks out. I guess taking shots is what you do. To me, you have to create plays both offensive and defensively to have a shot against these guys. If you try to play conservative and match up with these guys it won't work. They're better at every position across the board than any team in the country.
Mullen knows his team has an uphill battle heading into Tuscaloosa. "It should be a great challenge for us playing a team that does not show many weaknesses. They are very well coached, well-disciplined and filled with talent at every position. They have had a top recruiting class for each of the last four or five years. Everyone on their roster is a four or five star prospect. They get those guys in position to make plays and have a real physical team. They don't make many mistakes and do not turn the ball over. They pound on you and pound on you and wait for you to make a mistake as the game goes on. It should be a great challenge for our guys as we will have to play our best game of the year."
"They've got good balance on both sides of the ball," Wilson said. "They're almost 50-50 run pass, and they do both extremely well." Is the Tide's line good because it's big or it's strong? "A combination of both, but the biggest thing is experience," Wilson said. "A lot of those guys, this is their 38th and 49th start for some of these guys. Some of these guys have been playing a long time, so the chemistry that those guys have really makes them exceptional. They've probably seen every look, played in every venue and played in big games. That experience is what you can't teach, as well as the talent level."
"At this point, I think the NCAA is trying to get a handle on what is going on," Infante said. "There are enough questions that the NCAA has a good argument for getting involved. "I think the questions they want to answer right now is: Who was involved in this transfer? What happened as he left Washington? What happened as he got to Foley? Why did he transfer?" Infante points out that even if Pruitt did suggest to Paige that he should transfer for academic purposes, it still would not be considered an NCAA violation. "Now if the answers are 'Alabama told him to transfer to fix his academics' that is not by itself a problem. The biggest thing I think the NCAA is after is some background information for when Paige has to be certified academically."