TUSCALOOSA — Even after winning a 10th straight SEC regular-season game by more than three touchdowns, Alabama coach Nick Saban sounded despondent.
“I guess a win is a win,” he said in the aftermath of a 59-31 victory over Ole Miss Saturday.
Despite the most recent record-setting offensive performance, No. 2 Alabama (5-0, 2-0 SEC) entered its first open week like a team in need of repair — or at least a tune-up after another disappointing defensive effort in league play.
“I think you can look at the bye week a couple of different way. You can say it’s a week off or you can look at a bye week and say, ‘There’s a lot of things we need to improve on.’ That’s certainly the approach we want to take with our team,” Saban said. “I always say that if you win and don’t play well, that’s not really a good thing. That’s something our team needs to understand and our team needs to know. Also, that we can improve. … We didn’t obviously play a complete game. We got exposed in some areas where we didn’t play very well. And we’ve got to get those things fixed and play better.”
For the second straight conference game, the Crimson Tide defense surrendered more than 450 yards and 85 plays in a game. Ole Miss racked up 476 total yards on 88 plays— more than half of which came in the second half.
Much of that success came via a steady ground attack fueled by athletic true freshmen quarterback John Rhys Plumlee. Behind its talented backup, the Rebels produced 172 of its 279 rushing yards on 28 second-half carries. In all, Ole Miss compiled 324 yards on 47 plays over the final 30 minutes.
Plumlee, who made his first career start in place of injured redshirt freshman Matt Corral, combined for 250 total yards, including 109 rushing on 25 carries, and managed to exploit an inexperienced Crimson Tide defensive front seven that includes four true freshmen starters.
Suffice it to say, Alabama’s demanding head coach was not happy.
“Obviously we are playing some young guys on defense, (but) we are not really satisfied with the way we are playing defense right now, especially today,” Saban said. “Especially not being able to stop the run effectively, which is something we have always been able to do around here pretty well. I think that’s a team thing. I don’t think it’s about the defensive line or just about the linebackers. It’s how you play on the perimeter, how you tackle on the perimeter, how you contain the ball, how you run to the ball. We need to improve.”
Alabama ranks 38th nationally in total defense, surrendering 325.4 total yards per game, an average increase of more than 60 yards from the 261.1 average yards it allowed while leading the nation in total defense between 2016-17.
The 88 plays Ole Miss had Saturday were the most against Alabama since Clemson rolled up 99 for 511 yards in the 2016 national championship game, a 35-31 loss for the Tide.
Much of it came in chunk plays, as Ole Miss racked up seven plays of 13 or -more yards in the e final 7 ½ minutes it possessed the ball. Those seven chunk plays accounted for 14 points and 169 total yards, or more than half Ole Miss’ offensive yardage in the second half (324).
“We’re really giving other people opportunities to play, but those people need to play,” Saban admitted.
These are all unsettling numbers for an Alabama team that understands things are only going to get more difficult as the season goes on, be it in a Top 25 road game at Texas A&M in two weeks or a pair of Top-10 matchups in November against LSU and Auburn.
For many Tide veterans, the defensive issues are personally frustrating, especially in light of the unheralded success its offense is experiencing.
“We’ve got an offense that’s so good and plays so well every game, and we want to match them as best as we can, and right now, I don’t feel like we’re doing that,” junior safety Xavier McKinney said, according to 247Sports.com. “And it’s kind of frustrating because as being one of those leaders on the defense, it’s like it’s just happening. So, I feel like I need to do a better job, which I will do.”
That certainty was a shared sentiment throughout Alabama’s locker room Saturday night, especially for a defense entering the bye week with plenty to improve upon.
“It definitely showed us that we still have stuff to work on as a defense, as a team,” senior outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings said. “So, we’re going to attack our weaknesses and continue to improve, get better.”