It can come in many forms and from all angles.
It may be well-meaning flattery from people who played or coached college football, such as ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit saying there’s a big gap between Alabama and his next three teams (Ohio State, Michigan and Clemson).
Or it can come from people who never played football, like Paul Finebaum saying this Crimson Tide team might prove to be Nick Saban’s best ever.
It can come from social media posts or TV or radio programs, or even simple, seemingly harmless questions from the media. Or students on their way to class.
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As the college football season marches on, Alabama keeps takings steps toward regaining that air of near invincibility. The residual effect of beating Tennessee 49-10 – one week after handling Arkansas 49-30 – is the Crimson Tide players might get distracted from the next task. That next task just happens to be the No. 6 team in the country, the SEC’s only other undefeated team. Texas A&M visits Tuscaloosa Saturday and may be college football’s last realistic chance for anyone to hang a loss on Bama before the playoffs.
“There are external factors that I call clutter,” Saban said, “that really can affect your psychological disposition about how you scheme because you can get satisfied with people patting you on the back for what you did last week and then you get punched in the nose the next week. So it takes a special kind of maturity and a special kind of competitor to understand that. It comes from understanding how much you have to respect winning and what it takes to prepare to do that.”
The Aggies are 17-point underdogs. That prompted a tweet from Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin: “Somebody said, ‘Nobody is giving you a chance.’ Good thing ‘nobody’ is not playing this week.”
Alabama’s winning streak is up to 19 games. So with five regular season games plus the SEC Championship Game remaining, the streak could reach 25 games heading into the playoff.
Such talk, of course, will get Saban’s blood pressure up.
“We encourage the players to stay focused on the things that matter,” Saban said.
Things such as try to block Myles Garrett, the Aggies’ dominant pass-rusher, or containing quarterback Trevor Knight, who lit the Tide up with 348 yards passing and four touchdowns three years ago as a freshman at Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.
“Texas A&M probably presents as many issues as any team that we’ve played all year,” Saban said, before reeling off a list of those challenges.
“There are a lot of things important for us to do well in this game, and it’s going to take all phases doing them well to have a chance to be successful.”
As for Tennessee, Saban filed that game away with this succinct summary:
“We probably approached playing the most complete game we played all year. There’s obviously many things that we can improve on. I think the question is Do you rest on your laurels? Or do you stay hungry to try to improve, build on things that you did correctly and fix the ones that you didn’t? So you can either build on it or rest on it.”
That’s the scary thing. Saban wasn’t just trying to say all the right things by saying the Tide can keep improving. They really can – and probably will.
Specifically, Saban noted that the passing game can be better. As good as Jalen Hurts is, he’s still a freshman learning on the job. Pass protection. Route running. Reading coverages. Timing.
“We technically look at what our team needs to do,” Saban said. “Are they going to respond to it and build on it and not listen to what anyone has to say?”
If so, Finebaum might be right. This just might turn out to be Saban’s best team ever.
Guerry Clegg: firstname.lastname@example.org, @guerryclegg