KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — After spending the first two months of the season dominating college football, No. 1 Alabama heads into its open date believing it still has plenty of room for improvement.
Opponents may wonder how much better the Crimson Tide can get. Alabama (8-0, 5-0 SEC) has outscored teams by 35.8 points per game and has averaged 54.1 points to lead all Football Bowl Subdivision programs. Alabama trounced Tennessee 58-21 on Saturday while posting the highest point total ever produced by a visiting team at Neyland Stadium, which opened in 1921.
“We are going to be in more challenging games coming up,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “We have been 8-0 at this point a few times. It’s all about how you finish. This bye week is a good time for us to try and improve so we have a better chance to finish the way we want to finish and face the challenges coming up in the future.”
That challenging stretch run starts Nov. 3 with a Southeastern Conference Western Division showdown at No. 4 LSU (7-1, 4-1), which is also off next weekend. Alabama got a break Saturday when LSU star linebacker Devin White drew a targeting penalty in the second half of a 22-3 triumph over Mississippi State , which will prevent him from playing the first half of the Alabama game.
LSU still could provide Alabama with its first real challenge of the season. Alabama’s closest game so far has been a 45-23 victory over No. 16 Texas A&M.
Yet Alabama continues to figure out ways to get better. The Tide even switched punters this weekend as Mike Bernier took over for Skyler DeLong, who had averaged 34.4 yards per attempt.
“Nobody is entitled to a job,” Saban said. “Everyone is in a competition. We need to help Skyler DeLong, who has a lot of talent, become a better punter. He gets a little anxious in the game and loses his technique a little bit, so we are giving him some time to cool off a little bit and see things from a little different perspective.”
DeLong hadn’t gotten much work this season because Alabama rarely has to punt. Alabama has just 18 punts all season to match Georgia Tech for the lowest total of any FBS team, though the Yellow Jackets average fewer punts per game.
Alabama also wants to reduce the number of long passes it allows.
Alabama ranks 13th in pass efficiency defense after finishing in the top 10 in that category every year from 2015-17, including a No. 2 ranking last season. Alabama is allowing 15.9 points per game to rank 12th in scoring defense , a statistic in which it led the nation in 2016 (13 points per game) and 2017 (11.9).
“We are trying to work on everything, basically every play that got us, every big play we gave up this whole season,” defensive lineman Quinnen Williams said.
Although Alabama’s defense has 12 interceptions this season, it also has given up 12 touchdown passes.
After a big hit from Mack Wilson sidelined Tennessee starting quarterback Jarrett Guarantano on Saturday, backup Keller Chryst threw touchdown passes on each of his first two series. One of those touchdowns was set up by a 40-yard flea flicker from Chryst to Jauan Jennings.
“Even today, there were a lot of good things but also some things we need to do better,” Saban said after the Tennessee game. “We continue to make mistakes in critical times, whether it was the bust on the flea flicker or whatever it is.”
The scary part for opponents is that Alabama believes its potent offense can get even better. Heisman Trophy front-runner Tua Tagovailoa has thrown 25 touchdown passes without an interception.
“There is always something that we need to work on,” Tagovailoa said. “And for us to find that out, we need to go back to the drawing board and watch film to get better and go from there.”