Mighty Alabama and the emperor Saban return to the Dome

The inaugural Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game featured Clemson, which was ranked No. 9 in the USA Today preseason poll, and Alabama, which wasn’t ranked. Five SEC teams received more votes than the Crimson Tide. So did these: West Virginia, Kansas, Arizona State, BYU, Illinois, South Florida, Wake Forest and Fresno State.

The Tide beat Clemson 34-10 in the Georgia Dome on Aug. 30, 2008. Before September was done, Alabama would rise to No. 4 in the coaches’ poll – and No. 2 in the Associated Press rankings – after a famous victory over Georgia, which entered the season rated No. 1. Not since Sept. 13, 2008, has Alabama not been ranked in the top 10 by AP voters.

Nick Saban and Alabama will return to the Georgia Dome for this Saturday’s Kickoff Classic against Virginia Tech. When first he brought the Tide to this event, his was seen as just another program. (In 2007, Year 1 under Saban, Alabama had gone 7-6 and lost to Louisiana-Monroe.) Bama stands now as the only program that matters. It enters the new season as the prohibitive favorite to take a third consecutive BCS title and a fourth national championship in five years, neither of which has ever happened.

Not for the first time, we ask: At a time when more schools are playing serious football, how has Alabama lapped the field? How has Nicholas Lou Saban gone from being a good coach to maybe the best ever, better even than the sainted Paul William Bryant?

Partly by force of will — Saban eats lunch at his desk and insists staffers do the same — and partly by being smart. But the landscape is littered with coaches who log 16-hour days and can sketch X’s and O’s to beat the band. Why does Saban stand alone?

Because he was the right man in the right place at the right time. Only a few schools – Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Texas, Southern Cal – can approximate Alabama in tradition; none can trump its fervor. Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa just after the SEC’s run of BCS titles commenced. Through the televised magic of ESPN, the conference soon developed an aura the likes of which no league has ever worn. As the SEC’s standard-bearer, Saban’s program has never wanted for approbation, which makes an impression on teenagers.

Asked after the Tide beat Notre Dame for the BCS title in January if he wears his many championship rings, Saban said: “No. Sometimes I throw them on the table (to impress) the recruits.”

The bulk of Saban’s success is due to the man himself. The renowned disciplinarian hasn’t seen Alabama’s reign tarnished by a slew of arrests, as happened with Urban Meyer at Florida, and in his eminence he has come to display a softer (not to say soft) side. From being a notorious grump – after the 2008 victory in Athens, he fumed that the Tide had relaxed after assuming a 31-0 halftime lead – Saban has grown into a dispenser of life lessons.

Briefing the media in Tuscaloosa on Monday, Saban said of Alabama’s opener: “Are you going to be the real thing, or are you going to be someone who’s just out there? Are you going to be a blinking light, someone the opposition can take advantage of, or are you going to be disciplined and be a part of the team?”

More Saban: “It’s not about what you did last year … Each game has a history and life of its own.”

Even more: “Very seldom does a guy play a game and not have something go wrong … It’s your ability to play the next play and not be affected by it — can you still apply fundamentals and play with poise and confidence? Those guys have the best chance to be ‘gamers.’ ”

None of the above is theory-of-relativity stuff. Pop Warner coaches preach those values to their pint-sized charges. What renders resonance to Saban’s words is that his teams offer living proof. Alabama plays football the way football should be played – hard and smart and without fear. It’s not that Bama never loses; it’s that just the Tide is so darn hard to beat.

And here Bama comes again, history in its sights. The first Kickoff Classic made the Tide relevant. The game’s 2009 installment – a victory over the Hokies – was the springboard for an unbeaten run to the BCS title.

Having been the venue for all four of Saban’s SEC titles (two while with LSU) and a 2000 Chick-fil-Bowl victory over Georgia Tech, the Dome has gone a long way toward crowning him the emperor of college football. As good as the great man’s winning percentage is everywhere (.742), it’s even better (.875) in the building off Northside Drive.