TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Texas’ second game ever played in Tuscaloosa, more than 100 years since the first, produced an eerily similar result. The first, in 1902, saw Texas defeat Alabama 10-0. The story in the Austin-American Statesman read, “The Alabama boys are by no means dissatisfied with the result, as everyone expected Texas to win by a larger score.”
The 2023 edition of Alabama-Texas ended with the Longhorns winning by a 10-point margin yet again, but the reaction is starkly different. There’s plenty of dissatisfaction from Alabama, and nationally, a larger conversation will take place about who the 2023 Crimson Tide are and what that means for the sport.
Alabama’s 34-24 loss to Texas on Saturday has some historical significance. It marks the first home, nonconference loss since Nick Saban’s first season in 2007 (21-14 to UL Monroe) and its first double-digit home loss since 2004 (20-3 to South Carolina). One loss isn’t uncommon as only two national title teams under Saban were undefeated, but it’s how Alabama lost that’s alarming: undisciplined play, turnovers and losing at the line of scrimmage.
Saban described this game as a test in the lead-up to kickoff, and the early season conclusion is that this Alabama team isn’t like the Alabama teams that we’ve grown accustomed to seeing.
“We had like 10 penalties, two of which negated touchdowns,” Saban said. “They got 10 points off of turnovers, and we gave up way too many explosive plays on defense. We have to correct all those things if we’re going to be able to play and have the kind of team we’re capable of having.”
Stylistically, Alabama has changed during Saban’s tenure and has continued to win at each turn, but there are core characteristics that have carried over. Several were not present on Saturday:
• Ball security at quarterback: Starting quarterback Jalen Milroe threw two costly interceptions (on the opening drive and then trailing 20-16 in the fourth quarter) that led to 10 Texas points.
• Consistent skill position play: Alabama averaged 6.5 yards per rush in the first quarter but only 2.9 yards from the second quarter on. The pass offense did hit on explosive plays, but there wasn’t consistent wide-receiver separation, which affected the offensive rhythm.
• Line of scrimmage domination: Perhaps the most glaring aspect of Saturday’s game was Texas’ superior play in the trenches. Penalties aside, Alabama allowed five sacks and nine tackles for loss. Conversely, Alabama didn’t record a sack and had only two tackles for loss.
• Discipline: This is a continuation of last season’s issues. Alabama finished minus-2 in total margin in 2022, as it did on Saturday. Last year’s team led the SEC in penalty yardage (70.67 yards per game) and racked up 90 penalty yards to Texas.
The Crimson Tide aren’t devoid of talent, but Saban’s program has been built on attention to detail. Once rare occurrences like penalties, turnovers, blown coverages, etc., have become more common recently. Star power that might’ve overshadowed some of these issues in the past (like Bryce Young against Texas last season) isn’t present in the same capacity on this year’s team.
The experience level of this team is worth noting. Alabama is starting true freshmen at key positions, including Caleb Downs at safety and Kadyn Proctor at left tackle (the first since 2014). And both had their share of growing pains on Saturday. Elsewhere, starters like Malik Benson, Jaylen Key and Trezmen Marshall have collegiate experience but not within Alabama’s system.
That doesn’t mean that Alabama’s season is a completed story as Saban likened the loss to a midterm test and not the final exam. It wasn’t an SEC loss, and everything Alabama wants to achieve is attainable without any more hiccups, but Saturday’s game indicates that it could be a steeper hill to climb than in seasons past. What does that mean for the SEC and college football at large? Opportunity.
Alabama is to college football what Team USA basketball is to international competition. What comes to mind is the domination of a sport with the best players and the best coach, and naturally, you pencil them in when talking about championship contention without a thought. Losses are few and far between, but any loss or sign of slippage is cause for conversation.
Saturday’s loss marked Alabama’s fifth loss to a Power 5 team in its past 20 games against those opponents. The previous five losses took 50 games, including two to Clemson in national championship games. By almost any other program’s standard, a 75 percent winning percentage across 20 games is considered excellent. Alabama won a national championship in 2020 and played for another in 2021 but statistically is showing vulnerability, which opens the door for teams to capture marquee wins and insert themselves into the championship debate.
Saturday’s winner is a prime example. Texas is set to ride an extreme wave of momentum on the field from a confidence perspective and College Football Playoff implications and off the field with media hype and on the recruiting trail. In a lot of ways, the Longhorns have embraced the new wave of college football that can allow for programs to catch Alabama faster: NIL to attract high-level recruits and the transfer portal to supplement the roster with high-end college players (see AD Mitchell’s performance on Saturday).
In 2022, Tennessee and LSU’s victories provided immediate validation to their coaches Josh Heupel (who was in Year 2) and Brian Kelly (in Year 1) and propelled them to successful seasons (in LSU’s case, to the SEC championship game). Steve Sarkisian’s program should receive a similar boost after a marquee win that could signal Texas’ resurgence entering the SEC.
Texas, QB Quinn Ewers roll over Alabama
The Playoff is expanding soon, and when that happens, losses like Saturday will be less consequential, but this year is a different story. A second loss could be the de-facto kiss of death for the Playoff committee, and that could open the door for a team that might be left out otherwise. And if Alabama’s left out of the Playoff for a second straight year and without a national championship for a third straight, how will the program’s perception change entering a new, new world of college football?
Perhaps it’s as subtle as Alabama being as a premier program instead of the premier program, depending on who wins the championship this year: That’s a slight change with big implications.
Alabama first thoughts: What we learned about Crimson Tide in loss to Texas
Or, Alabama could turn the rest of the 2023 season into a joyless murderball revenge tour and re-assert its dominance. That result wouldn’t come as a surprise, but neither would a third consecutive season with multiple losses (and a fourth in the past five years). For perspective, Alabama only had three such seasons from 2009-2019.
Either way, the college football world will be watching, and what happens will have ramifications nationwide.
(Top photo of Nick Saban, right, and Jalen Milroe: Joe Robbins / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)