The great equalizer.
Nick Saban often talks attention to detail when referencing his team’s ability to perform to a standard instead of playing down to competition.
When those expectations aren’t met at Alabama, the SEC behemoth and two-time defending national champions appear vulnerable and that’s what happened Saturday night at Mississippi State when the top-ranked Crimson Tide turned it over a season-high four times and were unable to separate from the Bulldogs.
AJ McCarron’s two interceptions were a surprise, as were multiple lost fumbles from the Crimson Tide’s running game. Saban’s postgame reaction was not. Uninspired and sluggish, Alabama’s looked better this season.
Despite having the third-best turnover differential in the SEC at plus-4, the number is considerably smaller than the total number of mistakes Alabama’s pressure forced during last season’s title run. Turnover margin’s been a key element in the Crimson Tide’s recent BCS dominance, but it doesn’t appear Alabama will match 2012’s impressive plus-14 campaign.
The secondary’s no doubt been an area of weakness, a unit that’s combined for just nine interceptions — the worst per game average during the Saban era in Tuscaloosa. Only Kentucky, LSU, Georgia and Arkansas have picked off fewer passes this season. Make no mistake Alabama’s defense is still the SEC’s best and has allowed just seven touchdown passes, but when the Crimson Tide have been tested, it’s been through the air.
Here’s a quick look at Alabama’s total interceptions under Saban and why the Crimson Tide faithful shouldn’t panic just yet at the lack of turnovers:
2007 — 19 INT in 13 games: 1.46 PG avg.
2008 — 15 INT in 14 games: 1.07 PG avg.
2009 — 24 INT in 14 games: 1.71 PG avg.
2010 — 22 INT in 13 games: 1.69 PG avg.
2011 — 13 INT in 13 games: 1.00 PG avg.
2012 — 18 INT in 14 games: 1.28 PG avg.
2013 — 9 INT in 10 games: 0.90 PG avg.
As you can see, few momentum-changing plays against the pass doesn’t necessarily mean doom to the Crimson Tide’s BCS Championship hopes. During Saban’s seven years at the helm, two of Alabama’s three national title seasons came when the secondary wasn’t known for its ballhawking skills. The outlier was in 2009 when the Crimson Tide’s rise to national supremacy began under the direction of Mark Barron, Rolando McClain and Javier Arenas with a defense that was truly dominant with 32 sacks and 24 interceptions.
Having Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram at tailback alongside junior quarterback Greg McElroy certainly helped.
Compared to most programs, 15 forced turnovers (six fumbles, nine INTs) is a decent number at this stage of the season, but Saban expects more. And when Alabama’s rolling, defense and smashmouth football is its calling card.
Alabama’s only lost five games since its dynasty began four years ago, but in those defeats, a minus-6 turnover margin proved detrimental. If the SEC has its sights set on the league’s eighth consecutive BCS Championship, the Crimson Tide will have to take care of the football to capture another.
With Baylor, Florida State and Ohio State still unbeaten, it appears unlikely that a one-loss team from the SEC reaches Pasadena.