Against Ole Miss, Alabama faces its second statement game of the season

Something is very wrong in Tuscaloosa. You know it. I know it. Alabama fans know it. Alabama players know it. Lane Kiffin, the agent of chaos whose Ole Miss Rebels play Alabama this weekend, is reveling in it. And Nick Saban is coming to terms with it.

“We’ve had some tough stretches before and players have bounced back, but I think everybody has got to make a commitment to doing that,” Saban said Monday. “It’s not easy. We’ve got really tough competition coming up, but everybody has got to challenge themselves, I think, to be their best as a player, be their best as a team guy, be their best as a leader.”

It’s usually not a great sign when a team has two referendum games in its first month, but that’s where Alabama is right now. The Tide failed their first test against Texas two weeks ago. They’ll get a shot at redemption this weekend against Ole Miss, and by Saturday evening we’ll have a much better idea of the depths of Alabama’s troubles.

This being Alabama — and this being college football — the rumors, implications and innuendo around the 2023 Tide are thick enough to grab. But you don’t need to dig into all the palace-intrigue speculation around this team to see the scope of their problems; straight facts are more than enough.

Alabama is 2-1 on the season after a loss to Texas in Tuscaloosa and an uninspired slog of a win over South Florida. After an entire offseason spent debating the quarterback position, Saban has already played three different quarterbacks, with results ranging from cringeworthy to barely passable. Alabama’s offensive line, packed with four- and five-star recruits, is as stout as a weathered picket fence, its secondary was an on-ramp against Texas, and its receiving corps can’t manage separation or big-play creation. To top it all off, the team called a dreaded players-only meeting Monday to get, as guard Tyler Booker put it, “all on the same page now.”

So many of Alabama’s problems — quarterback play, blocking, rally killing penalties — were on full display against South Florida. Struggling in these situations isn’t unusual; playing an unranked team, particularly early in the season, is not unlike trying to fold a fitted bedsheet. You start out with a specific technique and strategy, and you end up balling the whole thing up and stuffing it in the closet.

Other teams fought their way through similar early difficulties Saturday. Michigan took a quarter and a half to find its footing against Bowling Green. Georgia trailed by two possessions at halftime against South Carolina. Florida State let Boston College hang around right until the very end of the game.

But against South Florida, Alabama ended up with the bedsheet wrapped around its head, and had to tear a hole in it to keep from passing out. Aside from the fact that the Tide averted a generational App State-over-Michigan upset, there’s little good news, especially on the offensive side of the ball, to take from Saturday’s sodden 17-3 debacle in Tampa.

“I need to do a little better job of getting them ready to play in games like this,” Saban said Saturday. “We were a little flat in the beginning.”

That's like saying Alabama has won a couple games the last 15 years. Quarterbacks Tyler Buchner and Ty Simpson combined to complete just 10 passes — five apiece – for a total of 107 yards against South Florida. Jalen Milroe, who had shared the SEC's offensive player of the week award back in Week 1, didn't see any action — feel free to speculate why; Twitter and Alabama message boards sure are — and managed to regain the starting job almost by default.

Plus, there’s the matter of in-game discipline. A year after Alabama was the most penalized team in FBS, penalties have once again bitten the Tide early in 2023. Alabama has already had four touchdowns negated by penalties, two each against Texas and USF. It’s easy to play what-if, but those touchdowns would have been the margin of victory against Texas, and then the college football world wouldn’t be dissecting Alabama like high schoolers in biology class.

There’s an argument to be made that a little early adversity is good for a team. Kiffin, who continues to dance along the line between needling Alabama and poking the bear, said as much earlier this week.

“Sometimes [an early-season loss] can kind of humble the team and can reset things,” he said. “You see that often. People have a loss early, people start discounting them. All of a sudden, they start playing better and fix their issues.”

Kiffin knows firsthand what he’s talking about. He was the offensive coordinator back in 2015, which — until this week — was the last time Alabama fell outside the top 10. Back then, Alabama had just lost, in Tuscaloosa, to a ranked opponent — in this case, Ole Miss — to fall to 2-1. Sound familiar?

All the Tide did after that was run the table right on through the national championship, beating Georgia, LSU, Texas A&M, Michigan State and Clemson, among many more. Yes, Alabama had Derrick Henry, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Calvin Ridley on the roster — but that Tide team also didn’t have a future NFL starter at quarterback. (Sorry, Jake Coker.) There’s still a wide open pathway for Alabama to render all these early-season critiques and problems irrelevant.

This year’s Alabama team is down, way down, but that’s a long way from being out. For now.

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