TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) It’s not like Alabama hasn’t been in these situations before: Facing intense pressure against a highly-ranked opponent with much of the nation watching.
The seventh-ranked Crimson Tide wilted late under those circumstances against No. 3 Mississippi, ending the final two drives with a fumble and an interception in a 23-17 loss that leaves no margin for error the rest of the way.
”It’s like we were scared to lose,” Alabama fullback Jalston Fowler said. ”Everybody wasn’t playing their A-Game. They were just `Oh, if we escape with a win we’ll be all right.”’
Win or lose the tight games, and Bama has been on both sides, that’s far from the impose-your-will mentality that has helped the Tide (4-1, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) win three national titles under coach Nick Saban and get penciled in before every season as a contender. Now, Alabama probably has to win out to remain in contention for the SEC West title and a spot in the playoffs, barring repeated rounds of attrition in the powerhouse division.
It’s not an altogether unfamiliar position. Alabama overcame similar down-to-the-wire regular-season defeats to win the national titles in both 2011 and 2012.
The difficult road back starts Saturday at Arkansas (3-2, 0-2), which Alabama coach Nick Saban calls the nation’s most improved team. The task is made even more challenging with injuries to three key players.
Versatile tailback Kenyan Drake is almost certainly out for the season after having surgery to repair a broken left leg. Saban said linebacker Denzel Devall, who has a leg injury, also had surgery and is likely out for three or four weeks.
Center Ryan Kelly (sprained knee) is sidelined for ”at least a couple weeks, depending on how his rehab goes as to when we can possibly get him back,” Saban said.
”This is obviously a situation where we’re going to need some other guys to step up big to take the roles of what these guys have been able to accomplish and do,” Saban said.
Alabama also hasn’t fared that well in its first two games away from Bryant-Denny Stadium, including an opening win over West Virginia in Atlanta.
This team has had some deficiencies that finally cost them dearly. Alabama ranks 13th in the league in turnover margin, 10th in red zone offense and ninth in penalties.
The four turnovers and 11 penalties against Florida hardly mattered in a three-touchdown victory. Overcoming mistakes was much harder against Ole Miss, which had dropped 10 straight in the series.
Now, Saban is stressing the importance of how Alabama, from him down to the players, answers the question: ”Who’s making this team better?”
”Look, playing in our league is like climbing a mountain,” Saban said. ”Every game is a critical game, every game is an important game and every team that you play in our division could beat anybody.
”And there are some very, very good teams in our league, including the one that we’re playing this week. So people make assumptions that just because it’s a certain team that you’ve beat for the last 10 years that you’re going to beat them again. I don’t think that’s necessarily true – especially this year, especially the competition that we have.”
The Tide rebounded from losses to SEC West rivals Texas A&M and LSU during its latest national title runs, following them up with dominating wins to close the regular season.
Alabama didn’t respond well to a last-second loss to Auburn in last season’s finale that knocked Saban’s team from the national and SEC races. With none of the loftier goals left to play for, the Tide was manhandled by Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema digs a little deeper in Alabama’s history under Saban, though.
”I think Alabama is a tough football team coming off a win or a loss,” Bielema said. ”I did the research as well and realized they had not lost two conference games back to back since his first year.
”Whatever it is, however it is, the one thing you see about Alabama is they stand the test of time and especially under Nick they are very, very good every game.”