Commentary

For Saban, there are no big games

Updated: September 13, 2013, 3:28 PM ET
By Chris Low | ESPN.com

This isn't just any ordinary week for Alabama and Nick Saban.

It's Texas A&M week.

Saban's renowned for peering in his rearview mirror about as often as fish come up for air, but you can bet that one thing in particular resonates with him regarding last season.

It's not that the Crimson Tide captured their second straight national championship. It's not that they put themselves in a position to do what no other college football team has done in the modern era, and it's not that they further established themselves as the team everybody is clamoring to beat.

Nope. Saban's chief takeaway from last season is that the Aggies waltzed into Bryant-Denny Stadium and were the better team that afternoon.

The Crimson Tide have done their best to downplay the revenge factor in Saturday's game, but there's a reason they're 7-1 in so-called revenge games under Saban with an average margin of victory of 20.9 points in those wins.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/Dave MartinNick Saban was frustrated by Texas A&M last year. But his former assistants say he doesn't want revenge. He just wants to fix what broke down in the loss.

Nobody's any better than Saban at dissecting his team's weaknesses, making the proper adjustments and zeroing in on what's right in front of him.

That may be more of a challenge than ever before given the Yahoo! Sports report this week that former offensive tackle D.J. Fluker was among five SEC players receiving improper benefits while still playing last season. The report, which included documents, alleged that former Alabama defensive lineman Luther Davis acted as a runner for agents.

There's not a lot that Saban can say about it at this point, as the school had already been looking into the allegations before the story broke Wednesday. Alabama officials also had an inkling that something was coming this week.

Still, Saban was in vintage form when he blew up at reporters in his Wednesday news conference for daring to ask one too many questions about the allegations.

But that's just Saban, who was equally chapped last week when he was peppered with more questions about the Tide's younger players than he cared to answer.

So had Saban not been so gruff Wednesday, that would have been out of character for a guy who doesn't deviate and doesn't differentiate from week to week regardless of whom the Crimson Tide are playing or where they're playing.

"That was so Coach Saban when I saw that," said former Alabama All-America offensive lineman Barrett Jones, now a rookie with the St. Louis Rams. "He hates distractions, and the thing about it is that he was always talking to us about agents and runners and not dealing with those guys.

"But he's also very proactive. When anything like this would happen, there was never any panic. He'd call the team together, address the situation and say, 'Here's the deal,' and would then tell us there was no reason to talk about it anymore and that it was time to focus on what was important."

Those who know Saban best and have worked with him closely over the years say that's one of the things that makes him so effective.

It's just not in his DNA to get too high or too low, regardless of the magnitude of the game or what's going on around him.

[+] EnlargeJim McElwain
AP Photo/The Denver Post/John LeybaJim McElwain, now Colorado State's head coach, says Nick Saban is a master of keeping players from getting too emotional.

"What I enjoyed so much about the culture there was that it was never about who you were playing," said Colorado State coach Jim McElwain, who was Saban's offensive coordinator at Alabama from 2008-11.

"It always had to do with: Are you getting better? Was it something they did or something we did? The other thing that was so beneficial was the competitive nature of practices between the offense and defense, which really prepares you for a game of this nature."

McElwain said Saban was probably more relaxed in those weeks when Alabama was playing a high-profile opponent and that there was a quiet confidence about him that filtered down to the team.

"He was never about a rivalry or the importance of one game," McElwain said. "Now, the players could sense the bright lights. They were like thoroughbreds. They know when that Derby bell goes off. But I never saw us where we were too high or too excited, and Nick was a master at that."

Florida coach Will Muschamp, who worked under Saban at LSU and with the Miami Dolphins, said there were no "big games" in Saban's world.

"It's the same approach every week, no matter how big of a game, no matter if it's the national championship, the SEC championship or if it's the state rival," Muschamp said. "He approaches every game exactly the same. He spends the same time at the office. He has the same type of preparation. He has the same type of intensity.

"That's the way you're supposed to do things because then you don't have the highs and lows through the season. You're going to point all your fingers at this game and say, 'This is an important game.' Well, what about next week?"

Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, who worked under Saban at Michigan State, said the other thing that sticks out about Saban is the feel he has for his staff.

"Because of that, his players didn't play tight," Grantham said. "He knew the way he approached it with his staff would feed down to the players, and I think that's a big reason they've played so well on these big stages."

Indeed, Alabama has won 12 of its past 14 games against top-10 foes going back to the start of the 2009 season. The only losses in that stretch were to LSU in 2011 (the regular-season game) and to Auburn in 2010.

The Crimson Tide came back to beat LSU, 21-0, in the 2011 BCS National Championship. And the year after losing a big lead to Auburn and falling 28-27 at home, Alabama blasted its Iron Bowl rivals 42-14 that next season.

"It's not revenge that drives him," Grantham said. "It's figuring out what happened and what went wrong and not letting that happen the next time. He's always looking at the things people do well against them."

Phil Savage, who was the Cleveland Browns' general manager when Saban was on that coaching staff in the early 1990s, now serves as the color commentator on Alabama's radio broadcasts. Savage is continually amazed at how successful Saban has been in getting so many people to pull in the same direction on a consistent basis.

"In this day and age, that's hard to do," said Savage, who was named as the executive director of the Senior Bowl last year. "Every single day, it's fourth-and-1 in that building, if not for everybody, for somebody. But that's a way of life for everybody in that program -- the players, coaches, graduate assistants, administrative assistants, everybody.

"So when they get to these types of games, I can assure you that pressure is a relative thing."

• • •

Clowney isn't dogging it

By now, we know that Jadeveon Clowney's probably not going to win the Heisman Trophy.

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
AP Photo/Stephen MortonJadeveon Clowney's season has been frustrating up to this point. But his numbers are similar to last year's at the same point.

He's been just OK in South Carolina's first two games and has racked up more ailments -- a stomach virus against North Carolina and sore foot against Georgia -- than he's recorded sacks.

While some on the Gamecocks' staff concede that Clowney might have been swallowed up to a degree by the massive amount of hype he received this offseason, nobody's concerned that he's close to putting it on cruise control for the rest of the season.

Clowney voiced some frustration following the 41-30 loss to Georgia that the coaches needed to put him in a position to make more plays to help his team win. He did have a sack in that game, but the Bulldogs ran away from him most of the time and threw it quickly.

It's worth noting that Clowney didn't start particularly fast a year ago but closed with a flourish.

Everybody in the South Carolina camp insists that his attitude has been good and that it's not a case of his dogging it or not caring.

If anything, Clowney might have put too much pressure on himself coming into this season.

The bottom line: He just has to find a way to start making more plays and quit worrying about all the reasons he's not.

• • •

Can Louisville go all the way?

What are No. 7 Louisville's chances of playing in the VIZIO BCS National Championship this season?

To have any chance, the Cardinals are going to have to be just about perfect, which means not only winning all 12 of their games, but winning them convincingly.

Their schedule is so weak that they're not going to receive any benefit of the doubt, which probably isn't fair when you think about how soundly they spanked Florida last season in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

[+] EnlargeTeddy Bridgewater
Chuck Cook/USA TODAY SportsCharlie Strong and Teddy Bridgewater could go undefeated this year and still be on the outside of the national title game.

One thing that would help Louisville is for the SEC teams to keep beating up on one another. Four of the five SEC teams that started the season ranked in the top 10 nationally will have losses after the Alabama-Texas A&M game on Saturday.

But it's hard to envision a scenario in which a one-loss SEC champion wouldn't finish ahead of an unbeaten Louisville team in the final BCS standings.

One of the other obstacles for Louisville may be the Clemson-Florida State survivor in the ACC.

Still, with the Cardinals sitting there at No. 7 in the polls so early in the season and not having to come from way back in the pack, it could get interesting if they keep winning and everybody else in front of them starts losing.

The closest test case would be TCU in 2010. The Horned Frogs were playing in the Mountain West Conference at the time and started the season ranked No. 7 in the coaches' poll, one of the three components used in the BCS standings. They won all 12 of their games during the regular season and beat two nationally ranked teams along the way, but finished No. 3 in the final BCS standings behind unbeaten Auburn and unbeaten Oregon.

So the Horned Frogs were at least poised to claim a spot in the national title game that year had there not been two unbeaten teams from the power conferences.

But it's worth noting that Auburn came all the way from No. 23 in the preseason poll that season and Oregon from No. 11.

At this point, it's difficult to see Louisville facing any ranked teams this season. The Cardinals play at Kentucky this weekend and will be looking for their third straight win over the Wildcats.

• • •

In recruiting, Oregon and Tennessee comparable

Good luck in finding a more explosive team in the country than Oregon, which gets a chance to add an SEC scalp to its collection Saturday when Tennessee visits Autzen Stadium.

The Ducks' athleticism is off the charts, and even the most loyal Tennessee fan would admit that the Vols don't measure up in terms of talent.

But if you conducted a quick survey of ESPN's recruiting rankings over the past four years, you might be surprised at which of these two schools has raked in the more highly regarded talent coming out of high school.

In the four signing classes from 2010-13, Tennessee signed 16 ESPN 150 prospects to Oregon's 13 ESPN 150 prospects. The Vols signed 31 four-star prospects during that span to the Ducks' 27 four-star prospects.

It's another reminder that what you do with players once you get them on your campus -- and how they develop athletically, academically and socially -- matters just as much as getting them to campus in the first place.

Chris Low | email

College Football

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.