TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama coach Nick Saban grinned as he turned a cigar over in his hands, wrapped up his postgame interview and jogged over to the student section to applaud it for a job well done after the 11th-ranked Crimson Tide finished off a 34-20 win at home against No. 17 Tennessee on Saturday evening.
The game felt like a microcosm of Alabama’s season thus far, starting out shaky before ultimately finding a way to survive and advance. The Tide, who have won six straight since a Week 2 loss to Texas, trailed by 13 at halftime and went on to score 27 straight against the rival Vols.
Afterward, Saban was asked about the journey this team has been on, including establishing an offensive identity with a new quarterback in Jalen Milroe and surviving closer-than-expected games against USF and Arkansas.
“I love it,” Saban said of coaching this team. “It’s been great. The challenges are great. I enjoy coaching this team. That’s not to say they’re not taking years off my life. But I’m OK with it. It’s fun because they’ve got a good spirit about them.”
Saban said it has been a fun group to coach because of the players’ competitive spirit, the relationships they have and their ability to take coaching.
Milroe was benched a week after throwing two interceptions against Texas. In the five games since he was reinstated as the starter, he has thrown eight touchdowns and three interceptions.
“I don’t think we sometimes show the maturity from a competitive standpoint to do everything on a consistent basis, which is what we keep trying to work toward,” Saban said. “But I’ll tell you, eight weeks in a row [without a bye] and the grind that we’ve had the last 4-5 weeks with the games in our league, I think psychologically we probably had a little bit of a tired team out there at the beginning of the game. And I think the momentum of the game gave them the energy they needed to play the way they could.”
Saban said the defense adjusted at halftime, switching from three down linemen to four, which helped them create pressure on Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton.
Milton finished 28-of-41 for 271 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He was sacked three times.
Defensive back Malachi Moore, who returned from an ankle sprain to play, said the message in the locker room at halftime was to “keep fighting.”
“This is what we do,” he said. “We’re built for situations like this.”
Moore acknowledged that the game meant “a lot,” given the way the Tide lost last season at Tennessee. Vols fans rushed the field and stadium operators played Alabama favorite “Dixieland Delight” over the loudspeakers in celebration.
Moore, who finished the game with five tackles and a pass breakup, said the Tide had been thinking about that loss all year long.
“It was personal,” said linebacker Chris Braswell, who had two sacks.
Saban, who called on fans to be loud this week, made a point to acknowledge the energy they provided the team.
“I wish I could thank each one of them personally,” he said.
After finishing taking questions, Saban had a parting message for reporters.
“Appreciate you all,” he said. “Fun day.”
Alabama, which has the next week off, will host No. 19 LSU on Nov. 4.