By GUERRY CLEGG
Special to the Ledger-Enquirer
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama coach Nick Saban seldom talks about winning. Instead, Saban uses words like “the process” and “playing up to a standard.”
The former is preparation; the latter, performance. Together, the process and standard produce championships.
The college football nation was reminded again Saturday night why Saban is the best coach in the college game. He is the Bill Belichick of the college level -- only with a little more charm. Which is to say a little, as opposed to none.
Saturday night’s clash with Florida was supposed to be a showdown. Instead, it was a beat down. And the final -- Alabama 31, Florida 6 -- didn’t fully reflect the Crimson Tide’s dominance.
To be sure, this is not one of Urban Meyer’s strongest Florida’s strongest teams. The No. 7 ranking the Gators carried into the game was mostly a product of reputation and a blowout win over Kentucky. But the Gators are still -- despite evidence to the contrary Saturday night -- a fine team. They are probably the strongest in the SEC East, which might not be saying much, other than a rematch in December in Atlanta is likely.
The Tide made the Gators appear ordinary. They made a confident team look confused, overwhelmed and, finally, completely overmatched.
This game was a statistical contradiction. Alabama had just one more first down than Florida (18-17) and ran 11 fewer offensive plays (63-52) and was outgained 281 yards to 273.
But when Florida threatened to score, the Alabama defense -- a rebuilding defense, mind you -- made even the simplest play for the Gators an event. The Gators penetrated the Alabama 20-yard line only four times all night. Two trips resulted in turnovers. One produced a largely meaningless field goal. The last, fittingly, fell short of a first down and left Florida quarterback John Brantley slumped on the turf in pain.
The one statistic that did speak the truth was turnovers. Alabama forced four and allowed none.
The first came on the Gators’ opening possession. Trey Burton’s faked a quarterback keeper and pulled up an attempted a jump pass to tight end Jordan Reed. Tim Tebow made this a signature play at Florida. It’s almost impossible to defend. But Alabama’s Nico Johnson sniffed out the trickery, stepped in front of Reed and intercepted the pass in the end zone.
Another sequence -- this one in the second quarter -- illustrated Florida’s frustration. Brantley ran wide right and was about to pitch the ball. But Brantley was chased down from behind by Courtney Upshaw, the linebacker who had come from the opposite side. The next play, a flustered Brantley was intercepted by Dre Kirkpatrick.
This might have been Alabama’s most impressive first half of football under Saban. Yes, even more impressive than the first half of last year’s win over Florida in the SEC championship game. Yes, even more impressive than the first half of last year’s win over Texas in the BCS championship game.
The second half was flawed but not much less dominant when it mattered most. Midway through the third quarter, Brantley -- trying to escape pressure -- forced a pass over the middle. C.J. Mosley intercepted it and returned it 35 yards for a touchdown.
Late in the third quarter, the Gators again found themselves breathing on the Alabama goal line. They had second and goal about football’s length from the end zone. They tried to run Emmanuel Moody up the middle. But the line collapsed before Brantley and Moody could make a clean exchange, and Upshaw ripped the loose ball away from Brantley.
The process is far from complete. Afterward, Saban talked about his team’s “passion.”
Other words he used:
“Physical. … Toughness. … Strong. … Motivated.”
Saban even allowed that he was pleased with the half, but stopped short of being satisfied. His approval carries a short expiration date.
“We have a 24-hour rule around here,” he said. “Enjoy it for 24 hours, then get ready for the next game.”
Indeed, nothing was won Saturday night other than one important conference game. Saban’s ability to keep his teams focused and improving is what separates him from everyone else.
“We focus on the standard we want to play to,” Saban said. He added that the atmosphere Saturday night “couldn’t get better …”
There, he placed a comma, not a period. “But we’ve got to reload.”
That has to be a scary thought for the rest of college football.
Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org