TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Alabama's season may have aged coach Nick Saban a bit, but he's not complaining.
Nothing has come easy so far for the ninth-ranked Crimson Tide.
Alabama eked out a win over Arkansas, sputtered at South Florida, survived the Mississippi game and needed a huge second-half surge to defeat Tennessee on Saturday and jump back into the top 10.
All that’s mostly OK with Saban. Or at least it was in the afterglow of that 34-20 victory over the Volunteers, the team's sixth straight win.
“I love it. It’s been great,” Saban said after the game. “The challenges are great. I enjoy coaching this team. That’s not to say that they’re not taking years off my life, but I’m OK with that.”
Alabama (7-1, 5-0 Southeastern Conference) went into its bye week as the only SEC Western Division team without a league loss. Next up: hosting No. 15 LSU, the biggest remaining division challenger, in two weeks.
The Tide hadn’t really looked like a national contender from start to finish of any game this season. They didn’t again early Saturday, finding themselves down 20-7 at halftime.
Then Alabama dominated the second half, 27-0, making key stops on defense and big plays on offense. It was a vintage Tide performance — for 30 minutes.
But, quarterback Jalen Milroe said, “winning is hard,” especially in the SEC. Especially for a team that had been plagued by penalties, sacks and turnovers.
“I think what we showed is that we don’t quit,” he said. “Here, we don’t quit. That’s the biggest thing and what we harp on in the offseason.”
Milroe overcame a fumble and an interception in the end zone. But Alabama committed only one penalty for 5 yards and allowed just one second-half sack after giving up three before halftime.
The Tide had a school-record 17 penalties in last year's 52-49 loss in Knoxville.
“That was a tremendous focus,” said linebacker Chris Braswell, whose fourth-quarter sack and forced fumble led to a scoop-and-score touchdown. “We always talk about playing to the 'Bama standard and playing disciplined.”
The Tide came closer to that “'Bama standard” in the second half for a much more sustained period, both offensively and defensively, than it had all season. The defense made two key fourth-down stops and contained Vols quarterback Joe Milton III and the running game after coming back out of the locker room.
“This is what we do,” safety Malachi Moore said. "We're built for situations like this. If we want to be a good team, we have to fight through adversity and that's what we did out there (Saturday).
“We really came together as a team and finished the game for 60 minutes.”
The up-and-down play, the sometimes self-inflicted challenges, appear to be just a part of this team. Still, Alabama has rebounded from its loss to No. 7 Texas with a string of wins, however they've come.
Saban is mostly enjoying the occasionally bumpy ride and how his team has shown resilience, if not the issues that have surfaced with more frequency than he'd like.
“It’s fun, because they’ve got a good spirit about them,” said the coach, who turns 72 on Oct. 31. “They’ve got good relationships on our team. I think the players legitimately care.”
Saban said he felt the recent grind of SEC games took a psychological toll on how the Tide played at the start of the Tennessee game. Then came a two-play touchdown drive, capped by Milroe's 46-yard pass to Isaiah Bond coming out of the half, and it was off to the races.
"I think the momentum of the game gave them the energy to play the way they’re capable of playing,” Saban said.
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