(AP) – The wins, points and big defensive plays have been piling up for No. 8 Alabama.
The Crimson Tide’s muscle-flexing hot streak began with a players-only meeting convened after a loss filled with blunders and aborted comebacks.
Since then, the Tide (6-1, 3-1 SEC) has rolled over two top-10 teams on the road with help from a barrage of defensive touchdowns. The blunders have been mostly committed by the other team and as for comebacks, Alabama only trailed once in the past four games – by four points against Arkansas at halftime.
”When we do what we need to do, we don’t feel like anybody can beat us,” defensive end Jonathan Allen said, when asked about the theme of that team meeting. ”When we execute to the best of our abilities, and play physical up front and on the back end we feel like we’re a tough defense to score on. If they can’t score, they can’t win.”
Alabama, which hosts Tennessee (3-3, 1-2) on Saturday, has certainly looked like Nick Saban’s typical formidable team in winning four consecutive games by a collective 140-47.
The Tide have forced 11 turnovers, returning four interceptions for touchdowns, during that four-game stretch. Alabama has coughed up the ball six times after then-No. 15 Mississippi forced five and cashed in on a couple of deep throws for scores in a 43-37 win Sept. 19. One of those was deflected off a helmet and on another, the Rebels appeared to have an ineligible lineman downfield.
Regardless, Alabama players held a meeting in which Allen said a number of team leaders spoke their minds. Linebacker Reggie Ragland said evidence that the message has sunk in abounds even when the TV cameras aren’t around.
”Ever since then, guys have been on each other,” Ragland said. ”Guys that never would talk are talking. Guys that were lazy aren’t being lazy any more. We’re doing our jobs. Everybody’s doing our job and if we keep doing that, we’ll be a tough team to beat.”
Wins over then-No. 8 Georgia and then-No. 9 Texas A&M pushed coach Saban past Bear Bryant in one category. He now has more road wins over top-10 teams than the college football icon, going 6-1 at Alabama.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones said the turnovers in the Ole Miss loss were the main difference in Alabama’s play.
”They’re playing the same way they played. They just have taken care of the football better, and they’re playing with a lot of confidence right now,” Jones said.
There are plenty of differences beyond cutting down the turnovers, though. Alabama set a school record with three interception returns for touchdowns against Texas A&M. Freshman Minkah Fitzpatrick had two of them and also scored on a blocked punt against Georgia. Eddie Jackson took one pick 93 yards against the Aggies and another 50 yards versus the Bulldogs.
The four interception returns for TDs ties the 2008 team for the most in Saban’s tenure.
Tailback Derrick Henry has run 85 times for 479 yards over the past three games. Like his team, quarterback Jake Coker has played his best in the big road games.
Saban was noncommittal when asked if the loss led some players to focus in more. He’d prefer to discuss the present, anyway.
”I know we have a lot of competitors on our team that were not satisfied with that performance and we have tried to get better,” he said. ”But my point of emphasis is `Where are we now? What do we need to do to get better?”’
The Tide haven’t had to ask themselves that question recently when facing Tennessee, winning eight straight matchups since the start of the 2007 season by an average of 23.5 points.
The Vols had an open date to savor their rally from 21 down to beat then-No. 19 Georgia 38-31 on Oct. 10. Joshua Dobbs threw for 312 yards, three touchdowns and one interception, and the Vols pounded the Bulldogs on the ground with 207 yards rushing – 118 and two TDs from Dobbs.
”The group of guys that we’ve got in our locker room is like no other,” linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin said. ”How tight we are and just how much we’re willing to fight for each other is something you really just can’t describe. We’re such a close team. When we hear all the outside distractions, we nip it in the bud.”
Tennessee has lost 22 in a row to ranked teams on the road.