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September 25, 2007
Saban has Tide playing at higher level
The numbers are the same. Alabama clearly isn't.
One-third of the way through the season Alabama has the identical 3-1 record it had at this point a year ago. But comparing this season's Tide under Nick Saban to last season's under Mike Shula is like comparing physiques of Arnold Schwarzenegger and George Costanza.
They both go about 240 or 250 pounds, so what's the difference, right?
Alabama has much more muscle than it did a season ago, which it showed even in a 26-23 overtime loss to Georgia last Saturday. For the second consecutive week, Saban made the right strategic moves when it mattered most. For the second consecutive week the Tide rallied from a fourth-quarter deficit. Still, Alabama lost.
Those positives might not be enough to console the few delusional fans who thought Saban's mere presence could vault the Tide to a national championship. However, it demonstrated the physical and mental strength necessary to avoid a repeat of the collapse of 2006 - when the Tide lost six of its last nine games.
Saban isn't interested in moral victories - not even against Georgia, which is a few dropped passes away from being undefeated.
"I think that was the worst we played all year long, not only in terms of our ability to execute but also in the intensity and the toughness, the spirit and the energy," Saban said after the game. "I am very proud of the way the team responded and played in the second half.
"We came back in the game on several occasions and had an opportunity to have a chance to win the game, so the competitive spirit, the overcoming adversity, the making adjustments and turning things around were all positives."
The Crimson Tide managed 145 yards on 31 offensive plays in the first half – about 4.6 yards per play. In the fourth quarter, Alabama averaged more than 7 yards while accumulating 155 yards on 22 plays.
"We just weren't executing in the first half," Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson said. "We did better in the second half. We could have had a couple passes that we could have hit. That's the way it's going to be every game. You just have to capitalize on those. We just have to execute. That's the difference in the ballgame."
Saban agreed, to some extent. He pointed out that Alabama had difficulty converting on third down, while Georgia converted on almost half of its third-down situations.
Alabama was 3-for-15 on third down, Georgia 9-for-19. The successful conversions contributed to the Bulldogs leading in time of possession by almost nine minutes.
That's a major area of concern for Alabama, which has allowed 64 points in its past two games. While the offense is averaging more than 100 more yards than it did last season, the defense has had some issues – particularly in pass coverage. Three of Alabama's next four opponents – Houston, Tennessee and Ole Miss – rank among the nation's top 40 in passing offense.
Still, Alabama doesn't appear as vulnerable as it was this time a year ago, when the Tide scored fewer than 20 points five times – all losses – after the 3-1 start.
Saban's track record shows he eventually will attract the caliber players who can play defense at a championship level. But that will take time.
For the time being, the Tide can be confident that it's much better – even if the record doesn't show it yet.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.