If Georgia can’t beat Bama now, when will Saban’s machine stop rolling?

Alabama coach Nick Saban, center, watches from the sideline during the first half of the Cotton Bowl NCAA College Football Playoff semifinal game against Cincinnati, Friday, Dec. 31, 2021, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

Credit: Michael Ainsworth

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Alabama coach Nick Saban, center, watches from the sideline during the first half of the Cotton Bowl NCAA College Football Playoff semifinal game against Cincinnati, Friday, Dec. 31, 2021, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

Credit: Michael Ainsworth

Credit: Michael Ainsworth

Eight players from Alabama’s 2020 national championship team were among the top 40 prospects selected in the past NFL draft. All the Crimson Tide’s skill players and their left tackle went in the first round. That was a year after five Alabama players were among the top 40 picks in the draft, with the quarterback and two wide receivers among the top 15.

And yet Alabama is playing for the national championship again. With a victory over Georgia on Monday in Indianapolis, the Tide will become the first back-to-back champions of the College Football Playoff era. They also would make shoulders slump not just in Athens, but at all the elite programs of college football.

If Nick Saban’s program keeps rolling after an unprecedented loss of top-level talent, then when will it ever stop? Kirby Smart has built his program in Alabama’s image. He finally has the depth of player talent to challenge his old boss. If the Bulldogs can’t beat Saban now, what does that mean not just for them but also everyone else?

Great players and good assistant coaches come and go from Tuscaloosa. Rivals rise, then recede. Alabama just keeps winning big with Saban. Losing more top prospects than ever to the draft didn’t change that.

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Statistical comparison of Georgia Alabama QBs ahead of CFP national championship game.

Credit: ArLuther Lee

Statistical comparison of Georgia Alabama QBs ahead of CFP national championship game.

Credit: ArLuther Lee

caption arrowCaption
Statistical comparison of Georgia Alabama QBs ahead of CFP national championship game.

Credit: ArLuther Lee

Credit: ArLuther Lee

The Tide’s sense of inevitability with Saban led everyone to assume they’d be great this season despite all the great players leaving. They were No. 1 in the preseason AP poll and the favorite on betting markets. Now Bama is in the CFP final as the No. 1 team and, according to the major statistical projections, have about a four-in-10 chance of beating Georgia again.

Pull that off, and a three-peat is a very strong possibility for the Tide. Unlike last season, half the players in the starting lineup aren’t projected to be selected in the next draft.

There probably are “only” three Alabama players who will be picked within the first two rounds: offensive tackle Evan Neal, wide receiver Jameson Williams and safety Jordan Battle. John Metchie likely would be on that list if he hadn’t suffered a torn ACL in the SEC Championship game. He may head to the NFL, anyway.

But star defensive end Will Anderson and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Bryce Young will return to play for Bama (unless something very weird happens). They would be first-round picks in the 2022 draft if they were able to seek their market value like every other worker. Instead, they’ll be part of another stacked Alabama roster in 2023 before going pro.

Those circumstances add urgency to Georgia’s mission. The Bulldogs are playing for their first national championship since 1980. That’s enough weight on its own. Adding to that burden is the knowledge that if they can’t beat Bama, it won’t get any easier. Saban has a lot of good players returning in 2023, plus former top recruits who’ve been waiting for their turn.

As everyone knows, Smart is 0-4 against Alabama at Georgia. One loss was in a CFP title game. Two were in SEC title games. After clawing their way back to the CFP, another loss to Bama on the big stage would be devastating for the Bulldogs on so many levels.

It would be dispiriting for other programs with similar ambitions. Like UGA, they are trying to copy Saban’s formula. Spend lavishly on coaches, support staff, recruiting and facilities. Sign good players until the roster is stacked. Cultivate a single-minded focus on winning it all.

No one has done all that as well as the original. That explains why Alabama is thriving after so many of its elite players left for the NFL. The six first-round picks for Alabama in 2021 tied a record set by Miami in the 2004 draft. That much talent drain has been lethal for other programs, but not Bama.

The Hurricanes were 46-4 from 2000-03. They won one Bowl Championship Series national championship game and lost another in double overtime (Miami should have been in the 2000 BCS title game). Since then, the ‘Canes have won as many as 10 games in one season and haven’t come close to getting back to recapturing the glory days.

See also: LSU. The Tigers won the 2019 national championship with an all-time great offense. Six players were drafted within the first 44 picks, including quarterback Joe Burrow. The Tigers are 11-11 over the past two seasons (with a bowl game pending Tuesday night) and coach Ed Orgeron is out.

What was ruinous for Miami and LSU was just a chance to refresh for the Tide.

Alabama won last season’s title with an offense that might have been even better than 2019 LSU. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian took the head coach job at Texas and Saban hired NFL castoff Bill O’Brien to replace him. The Tide are back in the national championship game with an offense that’s probably better than every team except Ohio State.

Absurd as it may seem, this was a down year for the Tide in some ways. They lost to Texas A&M for the first time since 2012. Alabama beat both Florida and Auburn by a margin of two points, the latter in four overtimes. Saban’s defense and offensive line haven’t played to their usual high standards for much of the season.

And yet the Tide are playing for the national championship again. By now, it’s clear that it doesn’t matter how many of Saban’s players go pro, which of his assistants takes a job elsewhere or how often Bama wobbles during a season. The will keep winning big so long as Saban is in charge.

That’s why there’s been an unofficial clock ticking for other SEC programs, and for national championship contenders everywhere. Saban is 70 years old. Every Oct. 31 he gets a year older and Alabama’s rivals get a little more hopeful he’s headed for retirement. Building a better program than Saban’s may not be possible, so they emulate it while angling to be in position to inherit the crown when the king is done with it.

But doing things Saban’s way doesn’t guarantee Saban’s results. Just ask Georgia. Shoot, ask nearly every other national title contender. Just five other programs have won national titles since Saban won his first at Bama in 2009.

Clemson did it twice while beating Bama in the title game both times. Dabo Swinney’s program has slipped since then. LSU took a brief turn at the top before collapsing. Ohio State won it all in 2014 after beating Alabama in the CFP semifinal. The Buckeyes finally made it back to the CFP title game last year, only to get smoked by Bama. Auburn, the 2010 BCS champion, hasn’t qualified for the CFP.

Jimbo Fisher won the CFP title with Jameis Winston at Florida State in 2013, but left the program in bad shape when he bolted for Texas A&M. In October, Fisher became the first former Saban assistant to beat his old boss in 25 tries. Fisher is recruiting on Saban’s level now, but he’s 34-14 at TAMU.

Meanwhile, Alabama’s machine keeps rolling. Saban keeps driving it to excellence when major parts are removed. Georgia better win a national title while it can. If the Bulldogs don’t do it now, we’ll spend another offseason wondering when Saban’s reign will end.