Alabama coach Nick Saban struck a mostly positive tone with his team after battling down to the wire against a heavy underdog.
That likely won't be the case if the third-ranked Crimson Tide (8-1, No. 2 CFP) has similar issues running the ball and putting away even bigger underdog New Mexico State (1-8) on Saturday. It's a respite from Southeastern Conference games after that 20-14 win over 29.5-point underdog LSU.
While Saban praised how well his team competed, there was no sidestepping the reality that it wasn't a dominant performance for a team with designs on repeating as national champions.
“There’s obviously a lot of things that we need to fix,” Saban said. "It didn’t look like an Alabama team out there in some phases of our team.”
Enter the Aggies, who are 51.5-point underdogs according to FanDuel Sportsbook. It looks like a break for 'Bama before facing fellow SEC West teams Arkansas and No. 16 Auburn.
Of course, that's not how Saban wants his team looking at it.
“I hope it doesn’t affect the team,” he said. "I think that your opponent should be faceless in terms of what you want to try to accomplish and what you want to try to do in terms of individually improving and getting better and individually and collectively as a team getting better.
“I think we certainly need to do that. ”
New Mexico State coach Doug Martin is used to leading teams against Power Five opponents. But a team that didn't play last fall because of the pandemic has plenty of players who haven't had that experience. The Aggies have 43 newcomers.
“As I told our players, all these guys growing up, if you’re any type of competitor, you dreamed of playing for a team like Alabama or playing against a team like Alabama,” Martin said.
Playing against the Tide presents “an opportunity to prove that they belong as an FBS player,” he said.
Alabama should be able to get its running game going after netting just 6 rushing yards against LSU, matching the fewest in the program's modern era. It didn't help that center Darrian Dalcourt missed much of the game with an anke injury, forcing Chris Owens to move inside and Dameion Georgia to take over at right tackle.
“I think the narrative is that the one-on-one battles is what hurt us,” Alabama guard Emil Ekiyor Jr. said. “I don’t think that’s really necessarily a problem. I think LSU had a really good game plan. And I think it limited us from getting up to the linebackers and getting to the second level as much because there were so many one-on-ones on the line.”
New Mexico State center Eli Johnson spent four seasons at Mississippi and grew up in the Oxford area, so he's well acquainted with the SEC. Johnson even played for the Rebels in Bryant-Denny Stadium in 2019, when he started every game.
“Alabama is different, man,” Johnson said. "I mean, football in the state of Alabama is the main event with both Alabama and Auburn.
“People live and die with the Crimson Tide.”
MARTIN'S SEC EXPERIENCE Martin was a Kentucky quarterback from 1981-84 — choosing the Wildcats, in part, because they were the only SEC team that offered him a scholarship and he wanted to play in that league.
RESERVE DB EXITS Backup defensive back Marcus Banks posted on social media this week of his plans to enter the NCAA transfer portal. Banks had played in eight games and started against Mercer due to injuries.
“We're making progress at that position and I'm not discouraged at all by the players that we have,” Saban said.
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