STARKVILLE, Miss. -- If you're a team with championship aspirations, these are the games you have to win. On the road. Without your best stuff. Everything going against you. The sound of cowbells jarring your very sense of time and place.
Alabama cornerback Deion Belue had to ask for earplugs to deal with the constant clanging of 57,211 Mississippi State fans Saturday night in Starkville. The deafening chatter was enough to rattle even the battle-tested Crimson Tide, who gave the ball away a season-high four times.
"We struggled to run the ball at times, didn't control the line of scrimmage like we like, turned the ball over four times," UA coach Nick Saban said after the game, his hair blown every which way by the wind and his own frustration. "That's not the kind of football we need to play if we're going to be the kind of team we're capable of being."
To borrow a favorite phrase of Saban's, No. 1 ranked Alabama went "rat trap" against Mississippi State, lacking all sense of rhythm and communication. The offense was ineffective, the defense out of sorts. Mississippi State, a sub-.500 team, had the Tide on the ropes.
A week after beating LSU in dramatic fashion, Saban had the letdown he'd spent all week avoiding. The "relief syndrome" he described to reporters on Monday was playing out in front of his eyes. Mississippi State was a field goal away from tying it up in the third quarter.
Then AJ McCarron took over and Alabama pulled away for a 20-7 victory that won't look impressive upon replay but might just be the gut check the Tide needed with an all-or-nothing showdown with No. 7 Auburn looming on the horizon.
McCarron had his fair share of struggles during the first half. Alabama's veteran quarterback completed just 9 of 19 passes. Frustrated, he threw his first interception in 139 attempts. But none of that mattered when he took the field with 10 minutes left in the third quarter. Barking orders like a determined general, he led a nine-play, 77-yard drive that culminated in a spectacular back-shoulder touchdown pass to Kevin Norwood. Alabama took a two-score lead and never looked back.
Alabama wasn't perfect for the remainder of the game. McCarron threw another interception and Mississippi State was able to move the ball effectively, albeit without finding the end zone. Like a pitcher without his best fastball or his sharpest curve, Alabama found a way to win.
"We won the game, but we didn't really beat the other team, if that makes any sense," Saban explained. "That's not how we usually try to do it, but there's a lot that our players can learn from this."
Norwood later crystalized his coach’s comments.
"If the other team is cheering after a loss, then definitely you didn't do your job," he said.
Norwood said "it wasn't us" and "we didn't play Bama ball," noting how the offense came out sluggish and stayed that way until the very end. Why that happened, he couldn't say.
"It was the most difficult game I've played all season," UA right guard Anthony Steen said. " It took us a while to warm up and we had our ups and downs, but luckily we won the game."
Where many of his teammates were somber and even negative, McCarron chose to look on the bright side. He had his second-lowest quarterback rating (113.5) of the season, but he saw the game as a teaching moment.
In a move that would have made his coach proud, McCarron said that "it was good for us to struggle and win."
"It reminds you that you're not as good as you think," he added.
The voters in the Associated Press and coaches' polls may not see it that way, but the fact remains that Alabama escaped Starkville with a win, undefeated and still in the driver's seat to win the SEC West. All that separates the Tide from a trip to the conference title game and a berth in the BCS National Championship is a Nov. 30 matchup against Auburn.
If Alabama is going to make it that far, games like Saturday night's can't happen again, Saban said. Everything needs to be clicking.
"That takes a heck of a lot of process, it takes a lot of discipline, it takes a lot of character, and you have to have those things if you're going to separate from other teams," Saban said. "That's something that we have to prove that we can do."