Nick Saban has come back before, but it feels different this time

Alabama’s coach has lost four of past 16 games.

This isn’t the first time outsiders have wondered if Nick Saban has lost his edge. It’s hard to remember when it last happened because Saban has become the greatest college football coach of all time. But there were doubts about Saban after Alabama faceplanted in back-to-back seasons 10 years ago.

In 2013, Saban outsmarted himself with the “Kick Six” at Auburn. The loss cost the Crimson Tide the SEC West title and ultimately locked them out of the national championship game. The next year, Saban’s team blew a two-touchdown lead to Ohio State in the national title game. Saban needed only five years to set a ludicrously high standard at Alabama, and it looked like he couldn’t sustain it.

Saban responded by producing the second-best four-year run of college football’s modern history. The Crimson Tide won the 2015 and 2017 national titles and made the championship game in ‘16 and ‘18. The only better four-year span was Saban’s three national titles from 2009-12.

Keep that history in mind if you’re pondering whether Saban finally has fallen off. That was my thought while watching Bama get handled by Texas in Tuscaloosa on Saturday. The 34-24 loss was Alabama’s first at home by a margin of more than a touchdown during Saban’s 17-year tenure.

The Tide weren’t unlucky. Texas was just better. The Tide held the lead for less than two minutes before the Longhorns physically dominated them in the fourth quarter.

“I think all these things are fixable,” Saban told reporters Monday. “We have good players.”

He’s right about that. It’s still the case that only Georgia recruits on Alabama’s level. And it’s not as if the Tide have nosedived.

Bama lost to Georgia in the 2021 national title game. Last season, the Tide lost two games by a total margin of four points. Both defeats were against top-15 opponents on the road. An upset loss to a talented Texas team in September doesn’t mean Bama is finished.

Yet it’s clear that Alabama has dipped below the high benchmark set by Saban. He’s bounced back before but it feels different this time, and not just because Saban will be 72 years old next month.

Bama’s assembly line of great quarterbacks and wide receivers has stalled. The Tide’s defense was dominant for more than a decade, but has allowed 30 or more points three times in the past eight games versus FBS opponents. Bama’s offensive line isn’t what it used to be, either.

Meanwhile Georgia, LSU, Texas and Texas A&M are surrounding the Tide as threats in the SEC. Three of those teams are coached by his ex-assistants. After winning the first 24 games against his ex-aides, Saban has lost three of the past seven. One of them, Georgia’s Kirby Smart, has elevated his program above Bama.

If Saban doesn’t win the national title this year, the three-year drought will be the longest of his Alabama tenure. Saban has raised the bar so high that it takes only a little bit of losing to fall below it. Sophomore guard Tyler Booker sounded as if he’s tired of hearing about how the current Tide don’t measure up.

“We get compared to a lot of the older Bama teams, and it’s just, time has passed,” Booker told reporters Monday. “Now me saying that, we’re still playing to the Bama standard.’ We still want to play the same way those teams have played.

“But it’s just a different generation of guys, different group of guys. There (are) different things we have to deal with as college athletes today. Regardless of that fact, we’re still playing to the Bama standard.’ The Bama standard is the goal, week in (and) week out.”

The Tide won’t win the national title this season unless they quickly figure out a way to meet that standard. They almost certainly need to run the table to make the College Football Playoff. The Tide will have to find another level after winning only 12 of their past 16 games. There’s no great quarterback to save Saban now.

The Tide won national titles with Jalen Hurts, Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones. Saban admitted that he considered benching quarterback Jalen Milroe when he struggled Saturday against Texas. It’s easy to scapegoat Milroe, but remember that Bama lost four games with Bryce Young, the No. 1 pick in this year’s NFL draft.

The Tide also are missing an elite wide receiver. Two ex-Bama pass-catchers were selected in the first round of the 2020 and 2021 drafts, and one was picked that high in 2022. No Tide wide receivers at all were drafted this year. There doesn’t appear to be a future first-round pick among this season’s group. Maybe someone will emerge, but there was a time when Bama wide receivers starred as freshmen.

The lack of punch in the passing game wouldn’t be so much of an issue if the Tide played defense like they used to. Texas gained six yards per play and 23 first downs while successfully converting nine of 21 third or fourth downs. That’s not a one-off. The Tide never ranked below seventh nationally in the defensive SP+ metric from 2008-20. Bama’s defense was ninth in 2021, 11th in 2022 and is 16th so far this season.

Now Saban must rally his program like he did after the 2014 season. But there are more factors for him to overcome now than there were then.

Smart has supplanted Saban at the top by matching his recruiting and building a dominant defense like Saban once had. Brian Kelly beat Saban in his first shot as LSU’s coach (that 2022 victory was only LSU’s second against Bama since 2011). Jimbo Fisher has elevated the recruiting at Texas A&M. Sarkisian’s Longhorns are set to join the SEC next season.

It’s foolish to write off Saban’s Tide this early in the season. It’s reasonable to wonder if Saban has it in him to make Bama dominant again. The Tide will benefit when the CFP expands from four to 12 teams in 2024. Who knew that Saban’s team would ever need the help?

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