BATON ROUGE, La. — At some point this season, No. 1 Alabama was going to have to break a sweat, and at the very least, come out of the halftime locker room knowing it was still in a football game.
And while Tiger Stadium, in all of its deafening glory, was up to the task for much of the night Saturday, the college football world was reminded yet again that this is an Alabama football team that simply knows how to win and can do so just about any way it wants to in a 29-0 bludgeoning of No. 3 LSU.
For the first time all season, the Crimson Tide didn’t score at least 39 points. Sophomore quarterback Tua Tagovailoa even had to play in the fourth quarter. And, yes, he threw his first interception of the season — but even that worked out for the Tide, as it pinned LSU deep and led to a pivotal Alabama touchdown just before halftime.
It has been that kind of season for Nick Saban’s squad, and really, that kind of run. They’ve now won 65 of their last 73 games against SEC opponents going back to the 2010 loss at South Carolina, and 54 of those wins have been by double digits.
By Alabama’s lofty offensive standards this season, this was a grind-it-out affair, with the Crimson Tide’s defense swarming and smothering LSU in its tracks, reminiscent of the way Saban has won all five of his national championships at Alabama and seemingly bearing down on a sixth.
LSU managed just 12 rushing yards, while Alabama piled up 281. If it sounds familiar, it should.
Tagovailoa, meanwhile, threw for two touchdowns and ran for another, a 44-yarder on Alabama’s second possession of the second half on a third-and-8 play to take any drama right out of the game. At that point, Alabama had outgained LSU 439 yards to 82 and had racked up 23 first downs to the Tigers’ six.
With all the talk coming into this game about Alabama’s video-game numbers on offense, Saban isn’t ready to say this is the “New Alabama,” or that he has undergone some type of football metamorphosis.
After all, he’s from the old school that says before you do anything else, you make sure you don’t beat yourself. And nobody over the last several years in the college game has been better at that than Alabama.
“All those strategic things you learned growing up, and you talk to [Bill] Parcells and talk to [Bill] Belichick, and it was always, ‘Keep from getting beat first,'” Saban told ESPN earlier this week. “And, now, everything is, ‘Just play to win. Try to score every chance you can, and forget everything else.’
“If you’ve got a 42 percent chance of making it from the 50-yard line going for it on fourth down, go for it. That’s sort of where the game is now, even though 58 percent of the time you’re giving the other team the ball at the 50-yard line.”
Sure, Saban might love stifling, bloody-your-nose defense the way most of us love our grandmother’s cooking, but he’s anything but close-minded. He knows as well as anybody what he has in Tagovailoa, not to mention the best collection of playmakers across the board that Saban says he has ever had at Alabama.
“Listen, I really don’t want to win 21-13. I know everybody says that, but that’s not true,” Saban said. “I want to score points on offense, be hard to score against on defense and play well on special teams and control the field position. But the most important thing is to get your team to play the best they can play. That’s the challenge. It’s the standard, not the result.”
Tagovailoa has now thrown 27 touchdown passes, and with his ability to spread the ball around and stretch the field, it has given Alabama a whole new identity on offense.
And that’s just fine with Saban.
“As good as we’ve been on offense, we haven’t been very good in short yardage, especially if we put big people in. But if we stay spread out, we do OK,” said Saban, who loves that bully mentality on offense as much as he does on defense.
“But that hasn’t been our mentality, not this team. It used to be our mentality. The players would cuss me out if we didn’t run it inside when Barrett Jones, D.J. Fluker and those guys were here on third-and-1 or fourth-and-1. They were all saying, ‘Run the ball behind me.’ Our guys now are saying, ‘Spread it out, and we’ll carve them up.’
“But that’s where the game is now.”
Tagovailoa said this is a team intent solely on winning, and that starts with the head man.
“For Coach Saban, as long as it helps us become successful as a team, he’s for it,” Tagovailoa said. “It’s not one of those things where if the offense is doing well, then, ‘Geez, the defense needs to step it up.’ I’m not saying that’s not what he wants from his defense, but I am saying, if it’s going to be beneficial for the team, then coach is all for it.”
Tagovailoa is easily the best passer Saban has had at Alabama. But equally important is that Tagovailoa personifies the next-play approach at the core of Saban’s “process.”
“Everybody sees just the good things we’re doing as an offense, and they don’t really understand the bad we’ve done,” Tagovailoa said. “And up to this point, the decision-making hasn’t been all that great with timing and what not. But you can get away with things like that when you have these kind of guys surrounding you.”
At his core, Saban is who he’s always been, and this Alabama football team is what everybody thought it was heading into the most anticipated showdown of the season. But Saban has also adapted and won in a fashion even he probably wouldn’t have believed 10 years ago.
“Hell, you’ve just got to coach what you’ve got,” Saban said. “And even though I thought we were going to have a different kind of team, we also lost five guys in the two deep on defense, our best outside linebacker and pass-rusher (Terrell Lewis), our best corner (Trevon Diggs) and three other really good players who would have been backup players.
“I looked it up in 2011, we gave up 8.1 points per game for the season and were (No. 1 nationally) in points allowed. If you give up 15 points a game now, you’re in the top 5 to top 10. I mean, twice as many. Philosophically, a lot of people have changed, not just us. If you look at some of the analytics now, whether you should go for it on fourth down and all the different situational stuff that happens, it’s all geared toward offense.”
Saban may not necessarily revel in it, but he gets it. He also likes winning, especially a second straight shutout of LSU at Tiger Stadium. The last time LSU scored a touchdown against Alabama in Tiger Stadium was the first quarter of the 2014 game.
“I think with the more prolific offense and more scoring in the game now, people start thinking, ‘Well, you’re going to score a lot of points anyway, so why not take more chances?’ ” Saban said. “But for me, I’ve always been more wired to think, ‘I’ve got a 42 percent chance here. Keep from getting beat before you try to win.’ You don’t think of taking chances, at least you didn’t used to. Yeah, maybe you go for it and it works and you go down and score and you’re a genius. But the other 50 percent of the time, you could have cost your team the game.
“What I do know is you’ve got to adapt, and you’ve got to keep adapting because the game is always changing.”
But Alabama keeps winning.