Two weeks to the hour from kicking off the 2021 season, Alabama players were in Bryant-Denny Stadium for the second of two August scrimmages.
Round 2 was more game-like than last Saturday — the safety net pulled back for a stress test of how different cogs in the machine perform. This is the week when coaches will decide who’ll be in the rotation and who might be a better candidate for a redshirt.
That, in turn, is stressful.
Saban explained the mental test received when the dog days of August bleed into the shadow of Labor Day weekend.
Anxiety, Saban said, is the “biggest thing we have to deal with” within the locker room.
“First of all, they read what you guys write,” Saban said. “They read that they’re supposed to be in the playoffs. They read that they’re No. 1. They read all these things that I’ve referred to this as ‘rat poison’ before. Alright, so that creates a lot of anxiety, and everybody thinks they have to elevate their game.”
And that’s the flip side of a No. 1 recruiting class ranked the best overall collection of talent in the modern era of evaluating high school talent. A first-world problem if there ever was one, Saban spoke to the recalibration required.
“You got young guys who are recruited that have high expectations for what they want to accomplish and what they want to do,” Saban said, “and in some cases, it may not be realistic in terms of how long they focused on what they have to do, the process of getting it right, and they got a little frustrated because they’re not making the kind of progress that they want to make.”
The older guys have been around long enough to taste the same success that’s creating the pressure to extend. They’re players who see positional battles reach a crescendo and the depth chart goes from hypothetic to ink on paper.
“I’m trying to convince them ‘hey man, we just got to play our game,’” Saban said. “‘Everybody’s got to play your game. Don’t put pressure on yourself and think you got to be something that you’re not, and we got to play together as a team.’”
Alabama is No. 1 in every preseason ranking as they inch closer to the Sept. 4 opener in Atlanta. There, the Crimson Tide will see a Miami team with nearly their entire offense back from a team that won seven of its first eight games before losing to North Carolina and Oklahoma State to close the season.
This is a Miami program eager to return to the perch Alabama’s held for more than a decade. As two-touchdown underdogs, there’s not quite the expectation they’ll be The U of old in two weeks and that can be liberating.
The opposite is true in Tuscaloosa.
“You got kind of all these variables sort of circling around on your team, and we really got to get everybody in the right mindset,” Saban said. “Just to buy into doing the things that they need to do to play well, play their game. I think for different guys on the team, there’s anxiety levels for different reasons, and we want to have high achievement, motivation and low anxiety and have guys excited about playing.”
For than, Saban turns to a message recently delivered to the team from broadcaster Ernie Johnson. It centered around the different mindsets of having to do something versus getting to.
“We get to play,” Saban said. “We get the challenges of the season. We get the opportunity to play some great football teams, some on the road, some at home, great SEC schedule. So, we get to do these things.
“That’s how I want everybody to look at it, so they got a lot of positive energy and enthusiasm to get after it.”
Two weeks from now, the effectiveness of that message will be on full display on national television as the 2021 season kicks off three hours east of Saturday’s final scrimmage.