TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama coach Nick Saban is hoping his team can find a way to grow from its first wire-to-wire challenge of the season.The top-ranked Crimson Tide were challenged Saturday night, but walk away with a 31-24 win over Mississippi State. Leading the way was quarterback Jalen Hurts.
Faced with that high-pressure situation for the first time since a last-second loss to Clemson in the national championship game, Hurts and Alabama delivered.
"We're a four-quarter team," Tide wide receiver Cam Sims said Monday. "They came out the first quarter ready and we just had to wear them down. In that fourth quarter, that's where we came alive."
Alabama is expected to take over the top spot in the playoff rankings released Tuesday since previous No. 1 Georgia fell 40-17 to Auburn.
Now, the Tide gets a breather from Southeastern Conference games with Saturday's visit by Mercer, an FCS team. Then comes the Iron Bowl at No. 6 Auburn in two weeks with an SEC West title and berth in the league championship game on the line.
Hurts led two fourth-quarter touchdown drives against Mississippi State, hitting freshman DeVonta Smith for the winning 26-yard score with 25 seconds left. Alabama hadn't been that situation that late in a game this season.
"It's sort of a work in progress all the time to try to continue to grow and develop as a team," Saban said. "That's certainly what our focus needs to be if we want to finish the way we'd like to finish."
A short-handed defense allowed only a field goal in the final 21 minutes to cap off an imperfect performance. The Bulldogs ran for 172 yards, the most Alabama has allowed this season. The second-most (151 yards) came the previous week against LSU.
The Tide was playing its first full game since losing starting linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton for the season with a knee injury, as well as key backup Mack Wilson (foot), possibly for the rest of the regular season. Linebackers Terrell Lewis and Christian Miller had already been lost to injuries in the opener against Florida State.
Saban said he emphasized having his players "thrive on hard" — meaning difficult circumstances — last week, and they did that in this one.
If players want to lean on the experience with Clemson as motivation or a rallying cry in a similar situation, Saban doesn't "think that's a bad thing."
Linebacker Rashaan Evans definitely saw some similarities between the two games, except with a different outcome and with Nick Fitzgerald at quarterback instead of Clemson's Deshaun Watson.
"Being down and for us to actually come back and finish the way we did kind of shows you some improvements as far as team-wise, being able to just overcome adversity and playing against a great quarterback that we faced," Evans said. "The quarterback we faced has some plays that kind of resemble Deshaun Watson, being able to just use his feet.
"Defensive-wise, I feel like that was probably the best thing for us to kind of just learn and understand that you've got to just do better individually — and not only individually but understand that you're not just playing for yourself but you're playing for a lot of other people, as well."