- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The scoreboard read like just another day at the office for Alabama, but Saturday night’s performance meant so much more to the No. 1 team in the nation.
It would have been easy for Alabama to coast through this one and grind out things in the fourth quarter, as it did against Missouri last week.
But the Crimson Tide didn’t come close to that. With their most balanced offensive performance of the season and yet another tremendous effort from their defense, the Tide pounded Tennessee 44-13 by playing arguably their most complete game of the season.
With top-15 opponents Mississippi State and LSU coming up in consecutive weeks, this was exactly the kind of performance Alabama needed going forward.
“We came in with a game plan and we executed it,” tight end Michael Williams said. “We like to come out and impose our will on our opponent, and we did that to the best of our abilities tonight.”
Previous games were mere tuneups for what lies ahead. Now, Alabama’s true tests come, and the difference between the SEC and more lies within the next two weeks. Heading into Saturday, questions still remained. Alabama did a great job of answering them.
Everyone harped on Alabama’s passing. On Saturday, quarterback AJ McCarron couldn’t throw it enough, as he passed for a career-high 306 yards and had four touchdowns on 17-of-22 passing.
People wondered how Alabama’s secondary would fare against a talented passing game. It shined, as Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson were targeted 14 times but combined for five catches for 95 yards and no touchdowns.
Tyler Bray threw for just 184 yards and two interceptions.
Players knew how important it was to come out and have everything click before Alabama's upcoming stretch. A rusty win only makes for longer film sessions and more pressing. This team had to have a complete game before facing the Bulldogs and Tigers.
After Saturday, Alabama is showing the systematic separation between not just its opponents, but the rest of the nation.
“We played all four quarters of Alabama football tonight,” center Barrett Jones said.
People nitpicked at the offense being too run-oriented, but it was as balanced as ever Saturday. McCarron was asked to pass more and showed he certainly doesn’t have a problem slinging the ball.
“Everybody’s gotta understand, we’re gonna take what the defense gives us,” McCarron said. “One week, we might have to run it, and the next week, we might have to throw it. Tonight, we got them on their heels a little and we were able to do both really well.”
So well that it even had coach Nick Saban consenting that this was his team’s most complete game.
“I was really pleased with how our guys played for 60 minutes in the game, and we know that’s what it would take,” Saban said. “They kept grinding, and we finally got control of the game.”
Alabama’s recovery was splendid, as well. Adversity hadn’t really hit this team until Saturday, but the Tide always responded, as the offense scored touchdowns directly after three drives that ended without scores and the defense erased big plays almost immediately after they occurred.
Tennessee averaged just 4 yards on the plays right after the Vols’ four pass plays that went for 20-plus yards. One play was a 2-yard touchdown, while only one other drive led to a score -- a 32-yard field goal.
Trouble didn’t bother Alabama.
“We did an excellent job doing that, forgetting about the big plays and making all big plays on defense,” said safety Robert Lester, who intercepted Bray in the end zone three plays after a 44-yard Hunter reception in the third.
Alabama wasn’t perfect, but it played its most well-rounded game without a lull in its performance. That’s what this team has waited for. It’s more focused and it’s getting better at the most important time of the season.