If the song “Step by Step” stuck in your head on Saturday night, that’s understandable. Or maybe “One Step Ahead” if you’re already in the holiday mood.
Both mirrored the Alabama Crimson Tide rebound game against Mississippi State.
The week following a football loss is always a time of soul-searching in Tuscaloosa, and while the university was throwing homecoming parties, this was no exception. The Crimson Tide needed to go back to basics, have the equivalent of a movie edit with the soundtrack’s key song ramped up, and have a drama-free finish at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
He did more than that as No. 6 Alabama edged No. 24 Mississippi State, 30-6.
At halftime, the only question was whether the Crimson Tide would get the shutout. The Air Raid attack stuttered. Alabama’s defense refused to give up big plays, while the team as a whole proved to be opportunistic.
“I like the mindset we had,” Nick Saban said.
That’s the biggest advantage of this game, the mental progress the Crimson Tide has made for at least one game.
Alabama (7-1 overall, 4-1 SEC) was patient. He showed balance. A week after having a program record 17 penalties, the Crimson Tide were flagged just once in the first half – an illegal formation on a punt that had to be restarted, with James Burnip who then ran a 50 yard to turn the field – and three in total.
Meanwhile, he waited for Mississippi State (5-3, 2-3) to make costly mistakes and then took advantage of those opportunities. With head coach Mike Leach aiming to be methodical and limit opportunities on the other side, he beat the Bulldogs at their own game.
It came three weeks after quarterback Bryce Young suffered a shoulder injury (which he can now rest for a week with the leave), and seven days after the Crimson Tide suffered a frustrating 52-49 loss to Tennessee that put T-town in a little funk.
Yes, losing is still a rare thing here, and Alabama fans have grown accustomed to opponents rushing onto the field for those rare celebrations. They know that the reviews are going to pile up ridiculously when given the chance and, to a lesser extent, that even the most fervent rivals are going to win from time to time.
You can almost still hear the echoes, “Yeah, but did it have to be Tennessee?”
Alabama fans had to put away their cigars for the first time in 16 years, waiting to see how the team would react. In the meantime, they were more discouraged than usual. But with the bye week looming, Mississippi State would be a strong indicator of what to expect on the stretch, and whether or not this version of the Crimson Tide should be dubbed The Pretenders.
To keep with the musical theme, there are certain artists and groups for which it is enough to turn on a song on the radio for two seconds to find out who is playing. Some bands and singers have a very distinctive and easily recognizable sound.
But there’s someone like Billy Joel, who has very few songs that sound alike. Perhaps there is a familiar rhythm or tempo, as one can often spot influences (like the prelude to an “Angry Young Man” is actually the drums of “Wipe Out” on the piano), while that the melodies and rhythm are unique to the song.
College football teams are often seen as the first, especially with a successful coach.
Each season, however, usually ends more like this last one, with its own personality and unique elements.
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That’s why when Alabama players and coaches talked about anxiety, mental health issues, and their psychological disposition, can you imagine that kind of conversation with other Crimson Tide coaches? As Prince once lyrically said, “Sign O’ the Times” mess with your mind – the team’s cerebral approach became history this week.
Saban has always emphasized such things and Alabama has had a director of behavioral medicine since the coach arrived in 2007. The terminology and approach has changed as the mental part of the sport is becoming more accepted, while society as a whole has become more understanding as well, particularly due to the stifling emotional strain of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I heard a lot of guys after the game say we knew what it was like, we know how to turn it around,” linebacker Will Anderson Jr. said earlier this week. “But do we really know how to get through this? Do we know what it takes to fail? Are we ready to overcome this difficulty?”
Therefore, the mental makeup of this year’s team could only be questioned. Did he just not know how to play “Under Pressure?”
Queen and David Bowie’s song has a very fitting lyric of “Madness laughs, under pressure we crack; can’t we give ourselves one more chance?”
“It’s time for us to respond,” Saban said in his pre-match interview on ESPN.
Some teams just need to have their “Back Against the Wall,” which is ironically the title of a song by rock band Cage the Elephant, and this Crimson Tide version isn’t unique in that regard. Only two teams coached by Saban in Alabama have been able to lead the table and win the national championship.
Every other suffered a regular season loss, and each time Alabama was able to refocus, retool, and rededicate itself for the final month of the regular season and beyond.
This game was a big leap to do all of that. Eliminating most of the mistakes that had plagued Alabama all season, the Crimson Tide looked like a team ready to come together for the stretch run.
“We played all night,” said Young, who was 21 for 35 for 249 yards and two touchdowns as Alabama won its 15th straight against the geographically closest SEC school.
In the process, a number of players who were coming off tough performances in Knoxville, including safety DeMarcco Hellams and kicker Will Reichard, got a major confidence boost just before the bye. Additionally, Alabama’s defense got a big boost with the first start of All-SEC-worthy cornerback Eli Ricks.
Next, the old school of the transfer, which is tied with Alabama at the top of SEC West, for a familiar game in another crazy atmosphere to kick off the month when the title picture is still beginning to clear.
Bring on November.
This column will be updated after the post-match press conferences.
Christopher Walsh’s column appears regularly on BamaCentral.
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