Relax, Alabama: Team thrives with looser mind-set

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) Alabama coach Nick Saban wanted his team to lighten up. Play loose, have fun, stop fretting so much about those burdensome expectations surrounding the program.

If it seems like odd advice from the man known for intensity and a fierce scowl, the fourth-ranked Crimson Tide responded with a pristine, dominating performance that was easily the team’s most impressive of the season.

Alabama (6-1, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) didn’t commit a turnover or a penalty in Saturday’s 59-0 demolition of then-No. 21 Texas A&M. The Tide jumped three spots in The Associated Press Top 25 as a result.

”Sometimes you get people so tight and so tensed up and so anxious that they don’t play with the kind of personality that they’re capable of,” Saban said. ”That’s something that we’ve been working on since the Ole Miss game, and I think our players have responded to it. I think they’re having more fun, which is really what we want them to do.”

Whatever the reason, the Tide seemed like a totally different team from the group that squeaked by Arkansas 14-13 and lost to No. 3 Mississippi.

The defense was smothering in holding a Top 5-ranked offense to 172 yards. The special teams didn’t make mistakes. And the offense rolled up 602 yards while striking an almost perfect balance: 298 rushing yards, 304 passing yards.

But it was the more loosey-goosey mood that stood out to Saban. He thinks the Tide’s energy and enthusiasm ratcheted up starting in the fourth quarter of a 14-13 win over Arkansas, which was evident in the emotions displayed on the sideline and the field.

”It’s something we’ve been focusing on, just to get a different vibe around here,” Alabama guard Arie Kouandjio said. ”And (Saturday) was a good testament to our progression in that.”

It was, indeed.

Alabama had been plagued by penalties and turnovers in three straight games. Whether it was youth or something else, Saban said he sensed his players being ”really, really nervous before games.”

The result was impressive when the Tide cleaned up its act.

Alabama will try to sustain the new approach with a visit to traditional rival Tennessee on Saturday. Saban preached a familiar message after the Arkansas game about the need to block out the unforgiving expectations hovering over his team: Ignore the external chatter.

He also expressed frustration that fans could be disappointed after winning by just one point, not to mention a sloppy performance against the Razorbacks.

”That’s what we’ve been trying to sell to our players, that it’s all about team, it’s all about what we do and how we do it,” Saban said. ”Everybody’s got to forget about all that other stuff. It does affect you, and it affects a lot of people. That’s why we see top teams struggle and then all of a sudden you start playing like you’re No. 1 rather than playing like you need to play to win and be successful.

”I just think the players are more relaxed and playing the way we want them to play.”

Alabama’s three biggest offensive stars had big games. Blake Sims passed for 268 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for a 43-yard score.

T.J. Yeldon ran for 114 yards and caught three passes for 45 yards. Amari Cooper produced two touchdowns and 140 yards on eight catches.

Plus, Christion Jones had a 47-yard return after having fumble issues in recent games.

Tailback Derrick Henry said the most impressive part of the Tide’s performance was ”us playing as a whole, as a team. Defense, offense, special teams.”

”That’s something coach preaches about,” Henry said. ”For us to play Alabama football, be able to dominate, we’ve got to be able to dominate on all three teams.”