Nick Saban began his run at Alabama with a 52-6 win over today’s opponent, Western Carolina. (AP photo by Dave Martin)
This is my story for today’s print editions:
TUSCALOOSA, Alabama — Alabama’s game today has the feel of a spring scrimmage, and that’s not necessarily a shot at the quality of the opponent, Western Carolina.
Most all of Alabama’s work will be on Alabama, just as it is during the spring. And Western Carolina (1-9) provides a safe opponent for the fifth-ranked Crimson Tide (9-1), which is looking to refocus on what remains of the season after last week’s stunning loss to Texas A&M.
“We are looking forward,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “The only thing that we can gain from the past is lessons learned, for all of us, in terms of what we can do better, what we need to do better and what everybody has to make a commitment to … and accomplish something significant with what is left of this season.”
When Alabama played undermanned non-conference foe earlier this year in Western Kentucky and Florida Atlantic, Saban stuck up for his opponent with plenty of passion. This week, even Saban is struggling for much to say about Western Carolina, as he examines his own team as closely as he has all year.
The Catamounts play in the Football Championship Subdivision. They’re 1-9 and have lost 25 of their last 27 games. The two wins in that stretch came over Mars Hill, which is a Division II school.
“We have a lot of respect for every team we play and certainly Western Carolina has done a lot of good things this season,” he said. “They’ve scored a lot of points.”
But even as Saban said that, he immediately drifted toward his priority this week: “I think the focus for us needs to be on what we are doing and how we are playing. That’s the approach I’d like to take with our coaches, our players and everybody in the organization.”
The biggest issue Saban wants corrected is the defensive problems with tackling and third-down play. LSU converted 10 third downs against Alabama two weeks ago. Last week, Texas A&M did it 11 times.
Senior linebacker Nico Johnson said he and his teammates feel an urgency to correct the problem.
“We’ve got to stop the run and we’ve got to tackle better,” he said. “It’s simple. We’ve got to tackle better. We have to start during the week. We have to practice it. If we don’t practice well, it will carry over to the game.”
What’s unusual about this particular game is that Western Carolina is looking at it the same way as Alabama. For the Catamounts, today is kind of like a spring scrimmage, too.
First-year coach Mark Speir took over for Dennis Wagner, who went 8-36 in four years. After beginning the season with a win over Mars Hill, the Catamounts have lost nine straight. After having last Saturday off, they’ll wrap up their year today.
So, Speir approached the past two weeks as preparation for next season.
“We put the pads back on, treated it like spring practice,” Speir said. “Lots of fundamentals, kind of like Football 101.”
Speir said it’s not like he’s ignoring today’s game.
Obviously, we want to play well,” he said. “We want to go down and play well.”
“We’re working on getting better, scrimmaging young players and working on improving,” he said.