- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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Alabama’s four-game romp through college football has been very impressive, but it hasn’t been perfect.
So, the half-kidding debate about whether the Crimson Tide could hold their own against the Cleveland Browns can stop. Although, with those replacement refs, anything is possible.
In all seriousness, No. 1 Alabama (4-0) has some weaknesses. Despite utterly dominating everyone in its path, the defending champ insists there are issues that have to be cleaned up. Those issues might not be as easily visible to outside viewers, but they’re there.
Senior center Barrett Jones admits they aren’t “glaring” issues, but there are little things involving execution that Alabama isn't doing well. Jones hasn’t been happy with the Tide's slow starts to games and wants third-down execution to improve. Alabama is tied for sixth in the SEC with a third-down conversion percentage of 44.4.
If the little things aren’t fixed, Jones said, Alabama’s dominance won’t last. He wants his team to take pride in an obsession with detail.
“It’s a tough league, and any day you show up average is the day you’re going to be beat,” Jones said.
It’s hard not to shower Alabama with all this love. The jury might be out on just how good Alabama’s competition has been, but you can’t ignore the Tide’s impressive numbers thus far.
Alabama has outscored its opponents 168-21; has two shutouts, including one at Arkansas (52-0); is giving up just 185 yards a game; is winning the turnover battle by 10; and is averaging 425 offensive yards a game.
The Crimson Tide completely dismantled a former top-10 Michigan team at a neutral site and waxed an Arkansas team that once had national championship aspirations in Fayetteville, Ark.
Both have looked shell-shocked ever since.
This team is really good, but it isn’t listening to that. It can’t with Nick Saban running the show. As senior linebacker Nico Johnson puts it, Saban makes sure players are “level-headed” by feeding them criticism while others feed them compliments.
“We know the more we win, the bigger the bull’s-eye is going to get and the more attention we’re gonna get,” Johnson said.
“If you walk around with your chest poked out, you spend too much time doing that instead of working.”
That’s what hurt the 2010 team, Johnson said. Fresh off a national championship, Johnson said that team was weakened by selfishness. There was a sense of entitlement for success, and some players felt they could slide by on talent alone.
Johnson said some players who felt they were going to be first-round draft picks had a “don’t care” attitude, which crippled the mindset of a very talented team and helped trigger a three-loss season.
“We understand that selfishness brought our team down and didn’t let us reach our potential that we should have,” Johnson said. “We understand that, and we try to prevent that from younger guys to older guys and try to get better. We want to go out and prove to everyone that we’re not a fluke team. We want to come in week in and week out and dominate our opponent.”
Johnson said the team relapsed the week before the Western Kentucky game with a “bad week of practice” that mimicked days from 2010. The result was a sloppy 35-0 win that saw Alabama give up six sacks and have no running back eclipse 40 yards rushing.
It served as a wake-up call, Johnson said, forcing players to be even more paranoid about feeding into the hype.
Jones, who can’t remember the last time he read an article dealing with himself or his team, said it isn’t about eliminating the attention, it’s about Saban’s process of moderation.
Two national titles in the past three seasons suggest the process works.
“No offense, but the media is quick to praise and quick to tear down when you make a mistake,” Jones said with a laugh. “We literally just don’t pay attention.”
But Jones has gone through these motions for five years. He’s used to tuning things out. Now, it’s about transforming the youngsters. Keeping them grounded is the key to maintaining Alabama’s success, Jones said.
“We have to teach them that we don’t just win here by showing up and having good players,” he said. “Certainly, we have good players, but we win because we focus on details and we work hard and we try to strive for perfection. We set a really high standard.”
For Johnson, he always thinks about 2010 when he feels like turning on ESPN or peeking into a newspaper. He doesn’t want to feel that pain again.
“I don’t want to be the linebacker to miss the tackle to give up the game-winning touchdown and ruin our whole season,” he said. “Everybody is always on edge to do the right thing and never take anything lightly. No one wants to be that guy to mess up.”
4dSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
5dTom VanHaaren and Erik McKinney