Why Saturday at Ole Miss is a totally unfamiliar challenge for Nick Saban
At this point in his career, Nick Saban has done it all.
I can’t imagine there’s much you could throw at him that would be a surprise. He adapted with the era of spread offenses and downfield passing. He hired coordinators and assistants with backgrounds of all kinds. He had to bounce back from all different kinds of midseason and late-season losses.
Spend half a century coaching this sport and the list of “firsts” to do isn’t long (I’m not holding my breath on Saban’s first tweet though).
But on Saturday at Ole Miss, Saban has a “first.” It’ll be Alabama’s first time playing a regular season game with 2 pre-Iron Bowl losses in the Playoff era. The last time that happened was 2010.
This situation, however, is different from 12 years ago when Alabama also went from preseason No. 1 to non-SEC West champ. That was before the days of late-season opt-outs, the transfer portal and the tampering that comes in the NIL world.
It’s one thing to be disciplined when literally every regular-season game Alabama has played during the Playoff era was laced with CFP implications. It’s another thing when that isn’t on the table.
Well, check that. One-loss Ole Miss still has a Playoff path, not Alabama.
And if you don’t believe that, remember that LSU would have to lose to Arkansas and at Texas A&M to open the door for Alabama. And if you believe that the first 2-loss team to ever make the Playoff is going to be a non-division winner that has 1 win against a current AP Top 25 team heading into mid-November — it was against last-minute win against a 3-loss Texas team that lost Quinn Ewers in the first quarter — well, that’s on you.
It’s over. Alabama is going to become the first preseason AP No. 1 to miss the Playoff since 2015 Ohio State. The Tide became the first preseason AP No. 1 team to suffer multiple regular-season losses since 2012 USC. Who coached that team, you ask? Lane Kiffin. Ironic, I know.
Kiffin’s offense will make you question how much you care about being out there. The tempo is among the quickest in the sport, and with the rushing attack he has this year, there’s no denying it can suck the life out of a defense. Ole Miss has the No. 1 non-service academy rushing attack in America. It’s led by Quinshon Judkins, who leads the SEC with 14 rushing touchdowns and is 2nd in rushing as a true freshman.
The one where Quinshon Judkins decided to end Texas A&M pic.twitter.com/0vzio7MgVj
— We Run the Sip (@OMRebelNation) October 30, 2022
Eleven months ago, Judkins won the 2021 Alabama 5A State Championship as the high-volume back for Pike Road (Ala.), yet he couldn’t get an offer from the Tide.
I won’t question Judkins’ motivation heading into Saturday. I will, however, question Alabama’s.
Don’t get it twisted. I’m not predicting that the Tide are about to go through the motions and get run off the field. For all I know, Alabama will play looser than ever now that it isn’t dealing with the anxiety that Will Anderson talked about after the Tennessee loss.
If you rolled your eyes at seeing the word “anxiety” referenced, here’s some more context about those aforementioned preseason No. 1 teams in the AP Poll. In the past 18 seasons, 2017 Alabama was the lone preseason AP No. 1 squad to win a national title. You might say “well that’s because the media is dumb.” OK, but even invincible Alabama was an AP preseason No. 1 a total of 7 times in the Saban era, and 6 of those instances saw the Tide fall short. The last preseason AP No. 1 to win its conference and a national title was 2004 USC, which fell short a year later with 2 Heisman Trophy winners in that all-time thriller against Texas.
Alabama’s 2 Heisman Trophy-worthy players likely won’t end their careers with the swan song that they hoped for. Soon, they’ll have to answer questions about opting out, as will many of their NFL-bound teammates. Will Anderson and Bryce Young weren’t even at Alabama the only time the Tide fell short of a national championship berth in the past 7 seasons. That year, Trevon Diggs and Terrell Lewis opted out, but Jerry Jeudy and Najee Harris didn’t (Harris not only didn’t opt out but he also returned for his senior season).
It’s relatively unfamiliar for Saban to combat that, and it’s totally unfamiliar for him to combat the new era of transfer portal tampering. That’ll be a case-by-case basis, but the new craze is players announcing their intentions to transfer when that portal window opens in the first week of December. It’s a touch different than making a trip to Atlanta to play in an SEC Championship.
These sound like basic things that the vast majority of the college football world is already experienced with. Alabama isn’t the vast majority of anything.
It’s almost as if Alabama is making the transition from being part of the royal family to living a civilian life. Yeah, you have to do your own groceries and pay your own bills now. This is how everyone else lives.
Of course, it doesn’t mean Alabama will be a civilian forever. Every time the Tide’s eulogy has been written during the Saban era, the resurrection quickly follows.
There’s nothing that’ll resurrect this season, though. Alabama must come to grips with its new reality. It still has 3 games regular-season games left and possibly a non-Playoff New Year’s 6 bowl. It can either throw in the towel with its national championship hopes dashed, or it can build some momentum heading into 2023, much like 2020 Georgia did after loss No. 2 game in a rivalry game.
That was the Dawgs’ last regular-season loss. Maybe the LSU game will be Alabama’s last regular-season loss for another 2 years. Or perhaps Ole Miss has the formula to continue the Tide’s misery.
A telling, atypical showdown awaits in Oxford.