- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- There was no dipping a toe in the water for preseason No. 1 Alabama. The Crimson Tide instead had to jump right in, battling sharks every week in the first month of the season.
The early stretch was brutal at times. Sure, Alabama looked like the best team in the country and got through the first four games undefeated, but there were certainly some blemishes revealed along the way. Each week and each win was a struggle.
Virginia Tech opened the season by stifling Alabama's offense in Atlanta, getting into the face of quarterback AJ McCarron by applying constant pressure on the backfield. The offensive line, a group that featured three new starters, looked nothing if not inexperienced.
Ninth-ranked Texas A&M then lit up Alabama two weeks later. Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans tore apart the secondary, abusing the Tide with the deep pass. UA set a kind of record you don't want to see, allowing the most yards in school history.
Even Colorado State, the $1.5 million cupcake courtesy of the Mountain West Conference, gave Alabama trouble. The Tide defense made too many mistakes and the offense was terribly inconsistent, failing to convert on a single third-down attempt in the first three quarters.
Then came No. 24 Ole Miss, an undefeated team playing with house money against Alabama. But this time, mercifully, the Tide put together a complete game and won, ending a four-game streak that tested the mettle of the championship contenders.
Now it's time to exhale. Alabama survived the early onslaught and can now take a breath to regroup with Georgia State, Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee up next. None of the four is ranked, and only the Razorbacks and the Vols are above .500, albeit at just one game over each. The four teams' combined record (7-11) is noticeably worse than the combined record of the first four teams Alabama faced (13-6) and the last four teams Alabama will face to end the season (11-6).
To make matters even more favorable for the Tide, Alabama will get a bye to start the month of November before hosting LSU on Nov. 9.
No team in the SEC has an easier next five weeks than Alabama. South Carolina is a close second and the only other school in the conference that won't face a ranked team over that time, but at least the Gamecocks don't have a cupcake like Georgia State to snack on. Instead, Steve Spurier's team will be tested somewhat by Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi State and undefeated Missouri. In fact, if one-loss South Carolina plays like it did against unranked UCF this past weekend, it might not be much of a championship contender come November.
The rest of the league's title contenders don't have it so easy. Georgia has rival Florida to contend with, LSU has Florida and Ole Miss in back-to-back weeks, and Texas A&M has to deal with the same explosive Rebels on Oct. 12.
Ole Miss is one of seven SEC schools to play two ranked opponents over the next five weeks. Only Tennessee and Missouri have it worse with three ranked opponents each in the month of October.
While Nick Saban might not be fond of focusing on records, it's hard to ignore the obvious -- if Alabama doesn't make it to November undefeated, it would be a shock. The Crimson Tide's coach isn't one to admit those things and he won't ever say an opponent is overmatched, but he and his staff do have the luxury of not stressing over serious competition the next few weeks.
Instead, they can budget their time wisely, resting banged up starters such as Ryan Kelly and T.J. Yeldon while working out the kinks with some younger guys for the stretch run, especially those on defense such as rookie cornerbacks Eddie Jackson and Maurice Smith.
"I'm looking more at the standard, not the record," Saban said following his team's shutout of No. 24 Ole Miss on Saturday night. "And I think it's important that our players do the same so we can continue to improve."
Improvement, though, might be the best Saban can hope for. Making another statement like his team did by thumping Ole Miss doesn't appear to be possible against the forthcoming carousel of unranked, overmatched opponents. Rather, building up some level of consistency over the next few weeks will be the challenge as the scoreboard certainly doesn't figure to be.
"We have high expectations for the standard of how we play," Saban said. "And I think more than what the record is, I think and our team thinks, what do we need to do so we can continue to improve so we can play the the standard on a more consistent basis.
"I would say if there's any criticism of myself, our staff and our team, it would be the fact that we have not been as consistent as we'd like to be."
Saban got through a rough, inconsistent start to the season intact and in the driver's seat for another run to the national championship. For the next month, he'll be in the enviable position of fine-tuning his team's mistakes against lesser competition.
While the rest of the SEC slogs through the ghoulish month of October, Alabama will be playing trick or treat each Saturday. All that remains now is reaching LSU on Nov. 9 without slipping on the proverbial banana peel.
23hSam Khan Jr.