Is Alabama immune to a 2010 relapse?
Looking back, it seems impossible.
Alabama was the preseason No. 1 team in the country for the first time in the Nick Saban era. Greg McElroy was the Tide’s senior quarterback. He had Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram to hand the ball off to and Heisman Trophy finalist Julio Jones to throw the ball to. Saban had Jim McElwain running the offense and Kirby Smart running the defense. Marcell Dareus, Dont’a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw, Dre Kirkpatrick and Mark Barron were back on the defensive side.
And that team finished fourth in the SEC West?!
The 2010 season was an outlier for Saban. Coming off a perfect season and a national title, it was supposed to be the next chapter of Alabama’s decade of dominance. Instead, it turned out to be the only time Alabama lost multiple SEC games and finished outside the top 10 from 2008-16.
Like that season, Alabama will start 2017 as the preseason No. 1 team in the country. In all likelihood, it won’t be the last time that happens in the Saban era.
Given how much success the Tide had in the six years since 2010 — 76-8 and three national championships is pretty good — the question is worth asking.
Can 2010 ever happen again in the Saban era?
That question obviously can’t be answered definitively. One could argue that the 2010 team was as talented as any Saban had, yet it couldn’t hold it together in SEC play. The 2016 Alabama squad was the exact opposite of that. Resilient it was, yet the Tide was so dominant until the national championship that it’s hard to praise its ability to handle adversity.
What we can do is dig a little deeper into the 2010 season and see if those same mistakes are avoidable.
For starters, the starters might have had something to do with that. Despite all that talent Alabama had in 2010, it had 10 returning starters, only two of whom were defensive players. The 2017 squad only has 11 returning starters, but it has six on offense and five on defense.
That 2010 squad had playmakers, but it also had a few flaws. That year, the Tide ranked 54th in sacks and 64th in tackles for loss. On offense, Alabama ranked 10th among SEC teams in sacks allowed per game and it was atypically mediocre (43rd among FBS teams) in the red zone.
One could go back to some individual plays that Alabama probably wishes it could have back — so could any team in any season — but when you take a closer look at that year, it’s obvious. It’s not something you’ll hear Saban say and it didn’t make that season any easier to stomach, yet it’s important to remember.
Alabama was really unlucky in 2010.
Start with the fact that the SEC was really good. The Sagarin ratings had Alabama with the fifth-toughest schedule in FBS. That’s because the SEC West finished with five of its six teams ranked inside the top 15. That’s absurd. If that happens again in 2017 with Alabama as the lone consensus top-10 team, that’ll be shocking.
Speaking of that 2010 schedule, it didn’t favor Alabama. Yes, the Tide rolled through a non-conference slate that included a home game against Penn State and a road tilt at Duke, but the SEC schedule didn’t line up well at all. By the time Alabama faced South Carolina on Oct. 9, it had already squared off with three ranked teams without a bye week.
Ah, the bye weeks.
Six of Alabama’s eight SEC opponents got a bye week to prepare for their matchup. Not surprisingly, all three of Alabama’s SEC losses (South Carolina, LSU, Auburn) fell into that category. Saban has since made his feelings known for the SEC allowing bye week scheduling like that.
In 2017, only Ole Miss and LSU will face Alabama coming off a bye. And you can bet Saban will do everything in his power to make sure Alabama doesn’t face six fresh SEC teams in any season beyond 2017.
It wasn’t just the schedule that didn’t bounce Alabama’s way that year. The ball literally didn’t bounce Alabama’s way.
The Tide recovered just four fumbles all season despite the fact that it forced 19. Utah State was the only FBS team that recovered fewer fumbles than Alabama in 2010. Sure, a team sets itself up to succeed, but it has to get lucky at certain points. For whatever reason, Alabama didn’t turn the ball over as frequently as it should’ve that year.
It’s interesting because many expect Alabama’s 2016 turnover numbers to regress to the mean in 2017. Alabama was fifth in FBS with 29 turnovers forced, and it scored an insane 11 defensive touchdowns. The odds of Saban’s teams sustaining that pace for the foreseeable future are nearly impossible, but that doesn’t mean one should expect a year like 2010, either.
There’s another important reason a 2010 relapse should be avoidable.
It always comes back to recruiting. Saban built a force unlike anything that exists in college football because of his ability to recruit. While he already had the Decade of Dominance in motion back in 2009-10, it’s easy to forget that Saban’s recruiting wasn’t quite at the level it’s at now.
Look at the 247sports national class rankings of Saban’s first four classes at Alabama before the 2010 season:
- 2007: No. 12
- 2008: No. 3
- 2009: No. 3
- 2010: No. 4
Impressive? Absolutely. But compare that to the next six classes Saban put together:
- 2011: No. 1
- 2012: No. 1
- 2013: No. 1
- 2014: No. 1
- 2015: No. 1
- 2016: No. 1
- 2017: No. 1
There’s more depth and talent now than there was seven years ago. Key injuries can happen, but Alabama is still better equipped to survive them now. That much is clear.
That 2010 season was the first time in the Saban era that Alabama was coming off a national title. It was also the first time the Tide started the season No. 1.
Compare that to this year. Alabama is coming off a devastating national championship loss. Dating back to when he started at LSU, three of Saban’s national titles came after bowl losses. You can read about how dominant his teams have been coming off bowl losses.
Add it all up, and it would be stunning to see Alabama repeat 2010 anytime soon. There’s always the possibility that it happens. There’s also the possibility that Saban shows up to a press conference with a bottle of Pepsi and a McElwain-like demeanor.
For now, though, don’t hold your breath on any of that happening.