As Alabama enters the open date of its 2021 football schedule with a 7-1 record and a No. 3 ranking in the Associated Press poll, there seem to be three categories in which to place Crimson Tide games to this point.
Impressive routs of Miami, Ole Miss and Mississippi State had this year's team looking a lot like last season's version that won a sixth national championship under Nick Saban. Blowouts of Mercer and Southern Mississippi revealed very little given the opposition, while the escape at Florida, the loss at Texas A&M and Saturday night's win over Tennessee led to some Saban postgame irritability.
Sure, Saban did not want to be "negative" about a 52-24 win over the Volunteers, but the fact this was a 31-24 contest two minutes into the fourth quarter ultimately produced some truth serum.
"We shouldn't need to be humiliated to go out there and play the way we're capable of," Saban said. "We should be a team that wants to beat other teams because of who we are and what our DNA is and what our disposition is and what we want our identity as a team to be. We're going to keep working on that."
Alabama has three straight home games against LSU, New Mexico State and Arkansas after its break before closing the regular season at Auburn, which went 3-1 against the Tide in Jordan-Hare Stadium under Gus Malzahn but is now under the guidance of Bryan Harsin. Sweep that quartet, and they will head to the Southeastern Conference championship game to potentially challenge a top-ranked Georgia.
The Tide dominated Tennessee statistically on Saturday but allowed a blocked punt as well as touchdown receptions of 57 and 70 yards. The 24 points by the Vols amazingly were the most in a regulation game against Alabama since their 35-24 triumph at Tuscaloosa in 2001, when Saban was winning the first of his two SEC titles at LSU.
"Even though they were going fast, they didn't sustain drives," Saban said. "They scored three times on big plays, and on the third-and-8 from the 8-yard line, we busted coverage. We had some matchup issues tonight that we've got to work on to try and get fixed."
When Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker connected with receiver JaVonta Payton for a 57-yard touchdown pass late in the first quarter, it provided the Vols with their first lead over Alabama since Jalen Hurd's 12-yard scoring run gave the visiting Vols a 14-13 edge with 5:49 remaining in the 2015 game. Alabama would come back to win 19-14.
That 57-yard strike also put Tennessee up by a touchdown over Alabama for the first time since Tauren Poole's 59-yard run in Knoxville opened the scoring in the 2010 game, which the Tide quickly regrouped to win 41-10. The only other occasion when Tennessee has led the Saban-coached Tide was the first meeting in 2007, when a 3-yard touchdown pass from Erik Ainge to Luke Stocker early in the second quarter gave the Vols a short-lived 14-10 advantage in an eventual 41-17 loss.
Of the 900 minutes Alabama and Tennessee have played with Saban coaching the Tide, the Vols have led for 22 minutes and six seconds.
Following Saturday night's 44-14 loss at Texas A&M, first-year South Carolina coach Shane Beamer offered a bit of a unique take on his Gamecocks entering their open date.
"We're a 4-4 football team, and frankly, I feel like we're better than a 4-4 football team," Beamer said. "We've got four games left. We've got to get better this week and finish this thing the right way."
I'm all for optimism, but "better than a 4-4 football team?"
South Carolina's four wins have come at the expense of Eastern Illinois, East Carolina, Troy and Vanderbilt, with the Gamecocks defeating ECU 20-17 on a field goal as time expired and subduing Vandy 21-20 on a touchdown pass in the final minute. The Gamecocks benefited from three Kentucky turnovers to keep that score respectable, and they've lost to Georgia, Tennessee and Texas A&M by the average tally of 43-16.
Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham didn't have a good weekend, and the Gators didn't even play.
One week after LSU's 49-42 upset of Florida, Ed Orgeron's Tigers were limited offensively in a 31-17 loss at Ole Miss. The Rebels were on the field for 93 defensive plays and allowed 676 total yards during their 52-51 surviving of Arkansas on Oct. 9, and they yielded 467 yards on 79 plays in the 31-26 win at Tennessee.
Against LSU, the Rebels gave up just 326 yards on 68 snaps.
"We're playing better," Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin said of his defenders. "When you play a slow-down offense like that, your guys can do a better job of pass rush like you saw today, and you're not having to play 80 or 90 snaps versus tempo. I'm sure they were happy that they went from seeing one of the fastest offenses in the country every day in practice and then the last two weeks playing two of the fastest three offenses in the country.
"They were happy to see something normal."
The biggest SEC game this week is the annual Georgia-Florida showdown in Jacksonville, though the Auburn-Ole Miss contest is the only league pairing with two ranked teams.
Six of the past seven Georgia-Florida series contests have been decided by at least two touchdowns, and the Bulldogs opened Sunday as 14-point favorites.