Nick Saban being the biggest storyline in college football, let alone the SEC, heading into a season is nothing new. But this year there’s a different narrative.
Saban’s Alabama program has experienced two straight seasons that have concluded with flat notes, both in New Orleans. Two years ago, it was Oklahoma that embarrassed the Tide 45-31 in the Sugar Bowl after the iconic “Kick Six” loss to Auburn ended the regular season. Last year, it was the eventual national champion, Ohio State, that pulled away from Saban’s team in the second half of a College Football Playoff semifinal to end up winning 42-35.
That leaves Saban in an unusual spot. Since he came to Alabama, his program has never completed three consecutive seasons without a national championship. Think about that for a second. He is entering his ninth season in Tuscaloosa. Alabama has been the gold standard in college football over the past half-decade, but that stat demonstrates that the dominance has fallen off a bit in the past two years.
Many schools would love to have just one of the seasons Alabama had in 2013 and 2014. The team had a record of 23-4 overall, 14-3 in the SEC. The four losses came to teams with an average rank of 7.5. But at Alabama under Saban, that can qualify as a disappointment when you had won the title three of the previous four years.
So what does that mean heading into 2015? If any coach has earned some leeway, it’s Nick Saban. However, he is not the kind of coach who has a lot of interest in just getting by or surviving the season. He wants to chase and catch history. He no doubt has Paul Bryant’s championship record in the back of his mind. The problem for him is that accomplishing that isn’t getting any simpler.
The SEC West is already overcrowded with elite teams, and the other side of the league is getting better. In addition, winning the national championship has changed completely, as Alabama knows well, with the advent of the playoff. The question has shifted over the past 12 to 18 months from “how many more” championships will Saban win to “will he ever” win another one?
The Alabama story this season will be a fascinating one to follow. There are questions at quarterback; there’s a lack of depth at running back; and there’s a defensive front that could end up being the best of the Saban era.
How will the team respond to the challenge of playing the toughest schedule in the nation? More importantly, how will Saban respond to it? It’s very difficult for me to picture Alabama sailing through without at least one loss. So the question becomes, when there’s a critical late-game situation on the road, a need to come-from-behind, or a critical injury, what will the mindset of this Saban-coached team be?
Observers have become accustomed to Saban’s Alabama steamrolling teams and being mentally equipped to win any game at any point, anywhere, in any situation. Will that characteristic prove true this year?
There has been wide speculation about how much longer Saban will coach at Alabama. Nobody really knows except Nick Saban, and I doubt he has finalized and definitive plans concerning the matter. If he wins the title this year, does he decide he’s won enough? If his team finishes on a sour note yet again, will he be frustrated to the point of not being interested in another try? Those are questions that you won’t hear him address at a press conference, at SEC Media Days, on ESPN or on his weekly in-season radio appearance, but they loom large for him personally with each passing day and season.
Two years ago, Saban was chasing the historic feat of winning three consecutive national titles. This year, he’s trying to avoid history and having three straight seasons without a national title for the first time since becoming the head coach at Alabama.