TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Keep a stat sheet handy when interviewing Alabama players, because it’s the only way to maintain a full picture of what kind of Crimson Tide team will arrive in Tiger Stadium a week from Saturday.
From their voices, you could get the impression that there are holes riddled throughout the nation’s consensus No. 1 team.
Alabama (8-0) must take it “one day at a time,” as senior tight end Hale Hentges put it, through a bye week that head coach Nick Saban described as something they must use to create their own momentum by using each day to “improve on the things you need to improve on.”
A look at the stat sheet provokes the question: Improve on what?
Alabama has beaten its eight opponents by an average of 38.25 points. The offense’s 54.1 points per game rank first nationally, and the number is on pace to shatter the program record that was set back in 1945, when the 10-0 Crimson Tide scored 43 points per game on its way to a Rose Bowl victory.
In Alabama’s most recent conquest — a 58-21 win over Tennessee — its true sophomore quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa, tied the NCAA record for most touchdowns thrown without an interception (25). The Hawaii native, who famously entered the second half of last year’s national championship to lead Alabama to a comeback victory over Georgia, has still yet to play in a fourth quarter this season, and his 2,066 passing yards are on pace to set the program’s single-season record.
The defense remains stout, allowing just 15.9 points per game (11th nationally), and it gave up a total of 17 points to Ole Miss and Missouri — the NCAA’s 22nd and 23rd ranks scoring offenses, respectively.
Then, in the sports books, there has yet to be a betting line that has favored Alabama less than 23 points over its opponent.
Of course, the numbers are byproducts of Alabama’s execution of schematics: the blocking schemes, pass patterns, coverage assignments — the minutiae that seems to never escape the minds of Crimson Tide players and their head coach.
“It takes extreme focus to be able to execute in the ways that we need to be successful against a really talented team,” starting left tackle Jonah Williams said. “I don’t think there’s any team in the country that’s good enough to get away with not being focused on the little things.”
Look at the previous years, Williams pointed out, the eight previous years in which the Tide entered November undefeated under Saban. Only once, in 2009, did Alabama finish the entire season undefeated.
“That’s a challenge for us moving forward,” Williams said. “We can be proud of what we’ve done so far, but it really doesn’t matter from here on out. The way we define the season happens from here and January.”
Alabama had its recent example, with No. 2 Ohio State losing 49-20 to Purdue last Saturday. The Buckeyes entered the game with the Big Ten Conference’s top offense (46.3 points per game), and all the previous statistics no longer mattered.
“You can go into a game, be the top team in the country and lose to an average team like that,” said Quinnen Williams, Alabama’s starting nose guard. “So, that’s why I really say mistakes and mental errors can kill a team. That’s why we really focus on the mistakes and mental errors this bye week, what we gave up in the past.”
No matter how much Alabama tries to bury its accolades, there isn’t much dirt to pile up around Tagovailoa.
“I think that Tua’s extremely talented,” Jonah Williams said. “He obviously has arm talent and great awareness. But I really think he executes the offense extremely well.”
The compliments must be permitted due to the quarterback’s near perfection and his personal ability to demure.
In a televised interview following the Tide’s 39-10 win over Missouri on Oct. 13, ESPN host Scott Van Pelt asked what Tagovailoa’s coaches had for him to correct, then responded “like what?” when Tagovailoa said “a lot of things.”
Tagovailoa pointed out a sack fumble in the Missouri game.
“I had a wide-open guy,” he said. “He had a dig route, and I held onto the ball too long. It was a timing route and my eyes were focused on the safety. I didn’t go through my progression quick enough.”
Tagovailoa’s ever-growing celebrity has not yet earned the ire of Saban, who last season said the national media’s complimentary coverage was like “rat poison” to his team.
“I think he handles it pretty well,” Saban said. “He seems to be focused. He doesn’t change his attitude toward preparation or how he plays in a game, how he treats his teammates, what his leadership role is, how important it is to focus and get it right.”
As for the direction of the team?
This was the most that Hentges would relent: “Obviously, we’re all working towards another great season. I think that we just got to realize that and put in that work every single day.”