It’s good to be King Crimson. When the 2018 college football season ends – Jan. 7 in Santa Clara, Calif. – there’s a real chance that Alabama will have its sixth title in 10 years. But even the king can’t control the vagaries of real life, and here’s the reality in Tuscaloosa:
Bama has two quarterbacks good enough to start anywhere, but only one can start there. And of the Crimson Tide’s 11 full-time coaches, two will be doing the job he did last year. One is Brent Key, who tutors the offensive line.
The other is Nick Saban, the best there ever was.
You might say, “As long as Saban’s there, nothing else matters” – and you might well be correct. Still, Alabama’s staff turnover surely is unprecedented for a program that didn’t fire everybody. Of Saban’s nine assistant coaches off his 2015 national championship team, as many (meaning two) work for Georgia as for the Crimson Tide. Four of those former assistants are head coaches, two in the SEC.
If you’re keeping score, Bama is on its third offensive coordinator in three years – its fourth if you count Steve Sarkisian, currently employed in Flowery Branch. It’s on its third defensive coordinator in four years. It’s still Alabama because Saban IS Alabama, but still … that’s an awful lot of moving parts.
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In his briefing Wednesday at SEC Media Days, Saban conceded the point, sort of: “We’ve had tremendous amount of staff change this year.” Then: “I really am pleased with the transition. Those coaches have done a very good job of what we want to do and how we want to do them.”
Then this, which should send chills down the spine of every other program: “This could be one of the best recruiting staffs we’ve ever had.”
As for the matter of Jaylen Hurts, the incumbent starter, and Tua Tagovailoa, who saved Saban’s bacon against Georgia in the most recent title tilt, the famous communicator basically said, “Don’t ask.”
Actually, he mentioned “the quarterback controversy that you (meaning us) have already created and will continue to create. You can ask about it all you want, but the answer will be, ‘It’s still to be determined’ … I’m going to say, ‘We’ll see.’ So don’t get mad.”
Saban’s appearance always is the highlight of Media Days. Other coaches enter the big room unnoticed. Saban’s arrival is always heralded by a buzz. (You win six national championships, you’re kind of a big deal.) He offered his annual semi-heartfelt thank-you to the press, whose coverage he ascribes to providing “positive self-gratification for our players.” Left unclear: Is it “self-gratification” if someone else supplies it. Wouldn’t “gratification” suffice?
Enough vocabulary fun. What of Hurts, 26-2 as the Tide’s No. 1 quarterback? Does Saban expect him to be on the roster come the season opener against Louisville? (Hurts’ dad has said his son will become “the biggest free agent in college football history” if dislodged.) “I have no idea. I expect him to be there. I believe it’s our job to give both guys a chance to win the team. … We’re hopeful he will stay at Alabama whatever his circumstances as a player.”
Whispers from Tuscaloosa hold that Saban realizes Tagovailoa is the bigger talent – and much the better passer – and eventually will anoint him No. 1. Just when is a matter of some debate. Almost nobody remembers that Blake Barnett was Bama’s starter against USC in the 2016 opener. He lasted two series. Hurts entered and led the Tide to a 52-6 victory and has started every game since. Could Saban use that season as a template -- waiting to see how the two quarterbacks perform in a real game (or two) before making a final determination?
One thing about Bama 2018, though: Real games could be few. Only two of its 12 opponents – LSU and Auburn, and the former isn’t a given – figure to be ranked among the preseason Top 25. Other foes: Arkansas State Louisiana-Lafayette and The Citadel. Louisville is minus Lamar Jackson. Of the Tide’s eight SEC games, four will come against teams with new coaches. With Auburn having to come to Bryant-Denny Stadium, it’s hard to see a loss here.
An unbeaten regular season surely would put Bama back in the playoff – it hasn’t missed one yet – even if it loses to Georgia in the SEC title tilt. Which would mean the great Saban, who’ll turn 67 on Halloween, would be nearing a seventh national championship, which led one among the assembled media to ask Wednesday: How much longer with this chasing?
Saban mentioned his wife, saying: “Miss Terry does not want me at home, whether I’m 60 or 70 or 80. She’s looking for something for me to do.”
Then: “I’m going to continue to do this for as long as I feel I can make a positive contribution and as long as I’m healthy enough to do it. Our noon basketball league was undefeated, so that’s a good indication I’m ready for another season.”
About those noon hoops session: His former assistants insist that Saban – and only Saban – calls the fouls, which rather skews the competition. Yep, it’s good to be King Crimson.