He’s Nick Saban and he coaches Alabama, which means attention must be paid, but it’s a different sort of attention. We no longer wonder if Saban’s Bama is invincible. We no longer see the sport’s most powerful coach as its shrewdest tactician. We no longer sit in awe.
And we on the periphery aren’t alone. Those who must play the Tide no longer tremble at the sound of the elephant’s approach. Alabama has gone two years without a national title, which in itself is no sin – Georgia has gone three decades without one – but is noteworthy when a program assembles the nation’s top recruiting class (this according to Rivals) six times in a seven-year span.
We can point to Nov. 30, 2013, as the day Alabama’s crown was dislodged. The Tide were 11-0 and bound for an unprecedented third consecutive national championship. Bama and Auburn appeared headed for overtime when one second was restored to the game clock, which gave Saban the idea of trying a 57-year field goal, which became Chris Davis’ Kick Six touchdown return and left the clear impression that the emperor of college football had outsmarted himself.
Relegated to the Sugar Bowl, Alabama was beaten by Oklahoma. Saban called it “an consolation game,” prompting the Sooners’ Bob Stoops to say: “So now I’ve a got a built-in excuse the next time we don’t play for a national championship?”
The Tide lost twice again last season – to Ole Miss on the road, which can happen once a decade, and to Ohio State and its third-string quarterback in the College Football Playoff. In his appearance at the SEC’s Media Days, Saban offered an excuse for the latter, this one downright esoteric. “Our team chemistry from the SEC championship game to the playoff game was affected by something,” he said, and that something was …
The NFL draft.
Saban: “To have a December 15 deadline from when a junior can submit for a draft grade and then you get that assessment back sometime right before or right after Christmas, and then you have a playoff game coming up on January 1 or 2 … So we’re trying to get ready for a game, and all of a sudden a guy finds out he’s a first-round draft pick or a guy who thought he was a first-round draft pick finds out he’s not a first-round draft pick, and we’re trying to get ready to play a playoff game.”
Had any other coach grasped this straw, he’d have been laughed out of court. Because he’s Saban, owner of four national titles, no titters were heard. But really: Was the NFL draft uppermost on Tide players’ minds when they led 21-6 three minutes before halftime?
More and more, un-Bama-like things are happening to Bama. An Auburn team that finished 8-5 scored 44 points and gained 630 yards on the famous defense in Tuscaloosa. Ohio State mustered 537 yards in its 42-35 Sugar Bowl victory. The infamous Lane Kiffin, imported to implement a hurry-up offense, got in such a hurry against the Buckeyes that Alabama, which was hammering Ohio State with Derrick Henry and T.J. Yeldon, threw more than it ran.
Saban conceded Wednesday that Alabama “ran out of gas a little bit” last season due to its hurrying. (Isn’t Bama famed for its conditioning?) For the second season running, the Tide will have a new quarterback, his identity as yet unknown. (This from the program of the seamless Wilson-to-McElroy-to-McCarron succession.)
Someone asked about Jonathan Taylor, dismissed from the Georgia squad after being charged with domestic violence but accepted by Alabama only to be booted after a second arrest. (Taylor’s second accuser recanted her story; that domestic-violence charge was dropped after he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor criminal mischief.) Taylor, Saban said, didn’t get “the kind of due process before he was judged (that) anyone should.”
Left unaddressed was why Alabama, with all those recruits, needed to take a risk on a player with charges pending in Athens. The answer is that it should have felt no such need, but again: Bama doesn’t quite seem Bama anymore. The Tide stand revealed as vulnerable, and the great Saban is making excuses.
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