We’re now far enough removed from the moment for prisoner of the moment takes.
We know there were plenty of those after Alabama suffered its worst defeat of the Nick Saban era at the hands of Clemson in the College Football Playoff National Championship. The easy hot take was that the coach 18 years Saban’s junior, Dabo Swinney, had a “passing of the torch” moment.
Five years ago, the easy hot take was that the coach 13 years Saban’s junior, Urban Meyer, had a “passing of the torch” moment himself. Meyer took down Saban en route to another national title. Like Swinney, Meyer’s team was the obvious early favorite the following season with a star returning quarterback.
The rest is obviously history. Saban made every National Championship Game since then and Meyer’s teams never scored another Playoff point before he announced his retirement at the end of the 2018 regular season.
So will this time be different? Are Saban and Alabama suddenly vulnerable?
There are some obvious differences. The biggest one being, well, the enormity of it. This wasn’t Alabama getting gashed and losing to a quarterback that it had 1 game of film on.
This was Alabama watching the most-hyped freshman in the country — and for good reason — blow the doors off the Crimson Tide. This was Alabama watching another true freshman from the state of Alabama look like Julio Jones in a Clemson uniform. This was Alabama watching a team put the game out of reach in the third quarter for the first time in the Saban era.
It was as stomach-turning of a 60 minutes as Alabama fans have experienced in the past decade.
That’s actually the good news, though. It was only 60 minutes. One game made everyone forget about the fact that Alabama put together arguably the most-dominant regular season we’ve ever seen, and it beat a pair of top-5 teams to reach the national championship.
A loss so unprecedented could prove to be the outlier. It also proved to be the beginning of Clemson’s reign alone atop the college football world.
There’s another key difference, and many pointed to this as a reason the Tigers were so successful against Alabama — the coaching stability. With Swinney running the offense, Clemson had seventh-year defensive coordinator Brent Venables on the other side of the ball.
Compare that to Alabama, which (again) had a first-year offensive and defensive coordinators. The revolving door of key assistants on Saban’s staff hasn’t stopped moving since the title game, either. Five of Saban’s on-field assistants are gone, including both coordinators and both of the top candidates to keep the offensive coordinator vacancy in house.
In 2014, Lane Kiffin was in his first year as Alabama’s offensive coordinator. Naturally, he was an easy target for blame after the Ohio State loss. But Kiffin didn’t leave after that loss, and neither did longtime assistant Kirby Smart. Both of Saban’s top assistants who experienced that season-ending defeat to Ohio State were part of the reason Alabama bounced back and played in the first of 4 consecutive national championships.
If Alabama bounces back this time, it’ll essentially be with a new staff around Saban.
And maybe there’s this notion that after Alabama’s wave of assistant departures that Saban is the grumpy old man who shoos people off his porch while Swinney is the fun adult whose kids actually want to hang out with him.
It didn’t help that even Saban’s fellow old man, Hunter Renfrow, had this comment about the difference between Alabama and Clemson:
“Coach Swinney has built it on fun, and obviously Coach Saban has built it on a process. I’m just so proud of being at a place like Clemson, where I feel like we’ve done it the right way. If we’re supposed to have only five guys on the field as coaches, we’re making sure we have five. We’re not doing it the wrong way and we’re having fun doing it.”
Renfrow later tried to walk back that comment, but regardless of whether he meant that as a shot or not, that’s still a different perception than Saban has ever had to deal with at Alabama.
So what now? Does that mean the hot-takers were right and the long-predicted death of Alabama’s dynasty is imminent?
Let’s not go there just yet. I’m not willing to say a team that won every regular season game by at least 22 points is suddenly going to fade from greatness. I am willing to say that 2018 Alabama had more issues than that stat would have suggested, and it took an all-time great Clemson team to expose them.
Yes, the game has changed, but Alabama’s inexperienced secondary was the weakness that never really got figured out. Losing those 6 top members of the defensive backfield mattered, and obviously it had something to do with Alabama allowing a touchdown per game more than it did in 2017. Surrendering 18 points per game is nothing to scoff at. It just was evidence that Alabama’s defense was more vulnerable than it was than usual.
When was the last time Alabama allowed 18 points per game? That 2014 season.
Nobody was expecting the Crimson Tide to pitch a shutout against Clemson. But watching Alabama’s most prolific offense ever fail to score in the last 3 quarters? That was unexpected, to say the least.
When you think about it, that was the perfect storm. I chalk some of that up to bad offensive game-planning, and a lot of it was just the rare sight of Alabama not being able to impose its will on 3rd- and 4th-and-short. The fact that Clemson had 2 All-American defensive linemen who atypically decided to return for their senior seasons had a lot to do with that, even though the Tigers played without one of their best big men, suspended DT Dexter Lawrence.
It’s because of that fact that Clemson’s 2018 squad could be the best Swinney has ever had. It’s hard to imagine a much more convincing team and season than what we saw from the Tigers, who had all the motivation after they were No. 2 all year behind the Alabama team that ended its title hopes a year before.
Now, Alabama gets to play that card. Saban gets an entire offseason to actually sell his team on the belief that they’re underdogs. He won’t have to ask media members to write negative things about his team like he did in 2018.
And oh, in case you forgot, he’s in position to sign possibly his highest-rated recruiting class ever in a couple weeks. That could slow down in the next couple years as Saban flirts with 70, but Alabama bounced back from that in a big way after watching its string of top-rated classes come to an end in 2018.
Does Saban have new obstacles standing in his way on the path to dominance? Absolutely. The secondary, a weak link all season, is being remade again. The staff turnover and the machine that Swinney has built is at the very least, going to be his motivating source. It’s no longer “Alabama’s only competition is itself.”
But is there now a roadblock preventing Saban from reaching the ultimate destination? Only a prisoner of the moment would say that.