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October 16, 2011

Hurt: The Battle Against Complacency

PHOTOS: Alabama vs. Ole Miss

Nick Saban seemed torn on Saturday night.

Seven games into the 2011 season, Saban would like to be pleased with the way his University of Alabama football team has played.

Truth be told, he is pleased. He would especially like for Crimson Tide fans and followers to be pleased, too, and appreciate performances like the one UA executed in Oxford, handing out the worst beating administered in the Alabama-Ole Miss series since 1931. He would like for a 52-7 victory on the road in Southeastern Conference play to actually excite someone.

The problem, though, is the bar has been set so high for Alabama football there was as much focus on the handful of things the Crimson Tide did wrong as the multitudinous things it did right.

At one point in his postgame press conference, Saban was asked how good he thought Alabama could be "when it played a full 60 minutes."

Rankled, Saban replied "I thought we played 60 minutes today but I guess if you took away the 30 seconds it took to make one play, then we didn't."

That "one play" was a 59-yard pass to set up Ole Miss' only touchdown. It was virtually the only highlight for the Rebels, but because it came on the game's first possession, it stuck in Alabama's craw, even as they spent the ensuing 58 minutes with their hands firmly around the Rebels' throat.
While the play did give Ole Miss something to cheer, even that backfired.

"Their crowd started trying to come into it, and we felt like we had to get out there and shut their mouth," Trent Richardson said. "And we did."

Saban liked the last 59 minutes of play, and said so. But he also acknowledged the plays he remembered most from the game were that long pass and the two ensuing runs that got Ole Miss into the end zone for its meager seven points. That's his nature as a coach. Over the past four years, the Alabama fan base has adopted the same attitude.

"We don't have many celebrated wins," Saban said, "because of expectations."

There is no argument about what those expectations are for this team. Nothing less than a BCS Championship game victory will do, and that opportunity depends on a Nov. 5 game against LSU.

The preceding games - except as a template for what might need to be fixed before LSU - don't seem to matter much in that quest. So Saban answered more questions about Ole Miss' 59-yard play than about Trent Richardson's 183-yard rushing performance.

There was as much attention given to kickoff coverage - not a strong suit for UA in this game - as to the fact Ole Miss couldn't muster 150 total yards. It's the curse, and the blessing, of what Saban has built.

No one should forget when he brought his first Alabama team to Oxford, it barely survived a dogfight, a late Ole Miss rally and a postgame shower of shakers, shoes and Chivas. In the ensuing four years, Alabama has evolved into a pride of marauding lions and Ole Miss, somehow, has digressed into a single-cell organism hoping to somehow survive by photosynthesis and the occasional double-reverse.

So Nick Saban is torn. He knows Southeastern Conference football games aren't supposed to be this easy, and he repeated often how "proud" he was of the road effort. But he also knows it is his job, above all other tasks, to fight complacency.

A good performance has to be followed by another, not admired in and of itself. It is a harsh reality. Alabama is good, very good, perhaps the best team in college football. Ask Ole Miss. But the sights of its fans now are set beyond "good," squarely on "great." And since Alabama can't prove greatness until Nov. 5 - and possibly even after that - the focus isn't on how good this team is, even when it dominates, but whether it can keep getting better.

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