You can see the logic of predicting Bama’s demise. Georgia and Texas A&M are in the SEC, and Saban is 70 years old. Maybe those two losses signal that Saban is vulnerable, but I’m not buying it. Remember when it was supposed to be Dabo Swinney’s turn at the top for a while?
Swinney’s Clemson Tigers made their case by beating Bama for national championships in 2016 and ‘18, and then making the 2019 title game. LSU routed Clemson in the Superdome, but LSU did that to everyone that year. It seemed that was a small setback for Clemson, but the Tigers are 20-5 since then with one lopsided loss in the College Football Playoff semifinals.
It’s hard to stay on top in college football, or even near it. Only Saban has done it. But even he has managed to win back-to-back national titles only once, in 2011 and 2012. That’s before the era of pretty much needing a top NFL prospect at quarterback to win it all. The Bulldogs bucked that trend with Stetson Bennett, but they’ll have to go through Bama again to repeat the feat.
It’s not impossible. Clemson did it twice. Swinney won big with relatively modest recruiting classes via continuity on his roster and coaching staff. Georgia’s advantage over Clemson could be that Smart built his program using Saban’s template.
Smart and Fisher are collecting commits from top recruits, same as Saban. Another ex-Saban aide, Steve Sarkisian, is starting to do the same at Texas (the Tide visit the Longhorns in September). All three programs are emulating the Alabama model of pouring resources into every part of the program (except for paying players their market value, of course).
Saban said he’s glad to see his former subordinates do well as head coaches. (He mentioned Georgia and Texas, but not A&M, an omission that may or may not be related to his feud with Fisher.) The way Saban sees it, it was just a matter of time before his ex-assistants built their programs to the point where they can beat him.
“This is not a surprise to me,” Saban said. “It was sort of expected, actually. I’m happy to see each and every one of those guys do extremely well. Not extremely well against Alabama, but extremely well.
“I’m kind of proud of the fact that there are some of our (former) coaches who have got some of the most successful programs in the country.”
Smart has done the best work of them all, but Alabama remains the standard. If you doubt that, Saban provided confirmation when he walked over to the SEC Network set Tuesday. Asked about when he plans to retire, Saban said he still loves his job and turned the question around on the hosts.
“I wish you all would ask all the other coaches that come up here because they tell all the recruits I’m going to retire,” Saban said. “Why don’t you ask them how they know I’m going to retire? When all I think about is what am I going to do if I retire? I love what I’m doing now, so how am I going to be happy not doing it?”
Other coaches don’t know when Saban will retire, of course. They just say they do to dissuade recruits from going to Tuscaloosa. Maybe those coaches also are doing some wishing. They’ll have to wait a while before Saban is gone for good. The Tide slipped only a little bit after six players were selected in the first round of the NFL draft from the 2020 champion, and they are favored to win the 2022 title.
Saban said rebuilding the offensive line will be key. He said it will be a challenge to replace “two great wide receivers” from last season, Jameson Williams and John Metchie. However, Saban noted that this will be the first season in a while that both of his top coordinators are back. And he said the return of Young and linebacker Will Anderson creates an unprecedented situation for his program.
“We’ve had some great impact players, but never one on offense, one on defense, of the caliber that these guys have been able to play on a consistent basis,” Saban said.
Georgia was better than Alabama last season, but the gap was small. Alabama beat the Bulldogs in the SEC Championship game behind a great performance by Young. Georgia struck back with a great performance by its elite defense. Most of the good players from that unit are off to the NFL. We’ll see if Smart can handle unprecedented attrition in his program the way Saban did last season.
Saban won his first title at Bama three years after retreating from the NFL back to college. Since then, he’s never gone more than two years without a title. Saban is 183-25 at Alabama, or 176-19 if you throw out the year that he picked up the pieces left over from Mike Shula. He’s won six national titles and had three other appearances in the championship game.
Smart and Fisher finally beat their old boss, but Swinney can tell them how those victories can be fleeting. Saban’s success at Alabama has been enduring, and that’s not changing.