BATON ROUGE, La. — Alabama players were still celebrating their latest great escape from Death Valley when coach Nick Saban delivered a sobering reminder of the letdown the Crimson Tide had after its last dramatic triumph at LSU.
”You know, we didn’t play very well after that win,” Saban said late Saturday night, alluding to an upset loss at home to Texas A&M and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel in 2012.
Another such let down this coming Saturday would be catastrophic for No. 4 Alabama’s national title hopes. The ringing of cow bells in and around Bryant-Denny Stadium will sound the arrival of the Southeastern Conference’s Western Division leader, unbeaten and top-ranked Mississippi State – and its Heisman contending quarterback Dak Prescott.
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The Crimson Tide (8-1, 5-1 SEC, No. 5 CFP) must follow up its 20-13 overtime triumph at LSU by beating the Bulldogs (9-0, 5-0, No. 1 CFP), and may very well also have to beat visiting Auburn in the Iron Bowl at the end of the month, to get to the SEC title game in Atlanta.
”We should be really happy about the fact that we won the game (at LSU). We control our own destiny in terms of what we want to accomplish and we won the game,” Saban said. ”But there is a, `but.’ We didn’t play that great.
”That takes a lot of maturity on our players’ part, to understand that they can’t be satisfied just because we won,” Saban continued, sternly. ”They have to show their maturity and willingness to go out and practice now and carry this energy over into the improvement we need to be able to have success in the future. Most of the time, that’s not our nature as human beings. When we win, we’re satisfied. We think we’re supposed to get a break."
In addition to not getting a break, Alabama will have to prepare an entirely different defensive scheme for the read-option, spread style of offense Prescott operates out of at Mississippi State.
Saban referred to the bruising, low-scoring affair at LSU as, ”old-fashioned ball,” that reminded him of his playing days at Kent State.
”Nothing spread about that,” Saban said.
”Not very many teams are as big (on defense) as we are, because we were really built to beat a team like LSU. Because when (Saban and his Alabama coaching staff) came in the league, that’s what this league was,” Saban added. ”It’s not that way anymore. You need smaller, faster guys to do all this spread stuff.”
Alabama also could be thin at running back. With Kenyan Drake already lost for the season, T.J. Yeldon appeared to twist his left ankle on what looked like a potential game-losing fumble deep in Alabama territory in the final minutes.
”He has a twisted ankle and I don’t know too much about what his status is or how bad it is,” Saban said.
The turnover led to a go-ahead field goal for LSU with 50 seconds left, and LSU issued a series a public address announcements asking fans not to run on the field after the game, as they’d done after an upset over Mississippi.
The Tide had its own plans for heading off a pitch invasion. First-year starting quarterback Blake Sims, who’d struggled to sustain drives all night in Death Valley, efficiently marched the Tide 55 yards in nine plays for a game-tying field goal. He then threw a textbook 6-yard fade to DeAndrew White in overtime, and Alabama’s defense stopped LSU’s lone OT series in four plays.
”We believed. That’s what our program is all about,” said Amari Cooper, who became Alabama’s all-time leader in yards receiving (currently 2,951), and also set single season Crimson Tide records for catches (79) and yards receiving (1,215) during the game.
Sims, Cooper said, ”was ready” for his big moment.
”He stepped up. He’s a great leader for us,” Cooper said. ”There was no fear in his eyes or anything like that.”
Saban praised his defense’s response after Yeldon’s turnover, and the way his offense responded after that.
”When the defense went out (after LSU) got the fumble, I said, `Guys, we’ve got to hold them to a field goal. We’re going to timeout `em. This is where you show you know how to win,”’ Saban said. ”When the offense went out with 50 seconds to go … I said, ‘This is where you show if you know how to win. Got to go kick a field goal — no timeouts. The players did a great job in both those circumstances and it continued in overtime.
”You have to have a lot of resiliency when you play in our league,” Saban added. ”These are good teams that we play.”