Why this will be the most challenging first-half schedule Nick Saban has faced at Alabama
If Alabama gets to the midway point of the 2021 season unscathed, it’ll be a unique accomplishment for Nick Saban.
Of course, he’s not in the business of celebrating midseason accomplishments. He’s also not in the business of comparisons.
I, however, am.
And dare I say, he’s never had to navigate a first half quite like this. It’s not just that he has a team that ranks No. 120 out of 127 FBS teams in percentage of returning production (via Bill Connelly), or that he has a new offensive coordinator replacing arguably the best assistant in program history.
This is Saban’s toughest first-half slate to date, and when you factor those things into it, this year will be a challenge unlike any other.
In Alabama’s first 6 games, it’ll face 4 teams (Miami, Florida, Ole Miss and Texas A&M) that figure to start in the Associated Press Top 25. Three of those games, including the Miami opener in Atlanta, are away from home. You could make a case that Alabama or Auburn has the toughest first 6 games of any team in America.
Alabama might have the best argument if stud Miami quarterback D’Eriq King returns from the torn ACL he suffered in the bowl game. But even if he doesn’t, the front half of the 2021 slate is still historically challenging.
(Now is the part in the story where the naysayers roll their eyes because FCS Mercer is 1 of those first 6 games. Now is the part in the story where I say comparing unranked teams doesn’t really matter for Alabama considering it’s been more than 10 years since Saban lost to someone ranked outside of the top 15.)
Go back and look at Alabama’s first 6 games in any given year of the Saban era. This puts that into perspective:
Based on that, the only real competition for “toughest first-half slate” would be the 2010 and 2016 seasons.
Obviously, we have the benefit of hindsight for both of those years, which followed different scripts. That 2010 team, which entered as defending national champs with Julio Jones, Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, fell victim to that brutal schedule. That gave us the classic Stephen Garcia South Carolina game, which marked the last time Alabama lost to a non-top 15 team and was the last time that Saban lost to an SEC East foe.
Did South Carolina deserve to win on that day? Absolutely. Garcia and Alshon Jeffery were brilliant, and the Gamecock defense totally took away Alabama’s ground game, which put too much pressure on Greg McElroy. Did Alabama look like a team that was coming off consecutive games against top-10 teams? Absolutely. Both things can be true at the same time. There might not have been a team in college football who could’ve beaten Steve Spurrier’s squad on that day in Williams-Brice Stadium.
That day is the exact reason we should never assume gauntlets with multiple true road games against ranked foes are Saban-proof. Even with 3 proven star skill players (something I’d argue Alabama doesn’t have in 2021), the Tide barely got through the Arkansas game 2 weeks earlier, and if not for that Dre Kirkpatrick interception, Saban’s team could’ve been staring at 2 losses by the midway point of the 2010 season.
That’s what made the 2016 team so remarkable. In the first 6 games with a true freshman quarterback, it demolished a USC team that went on to win the Rose Bowl, it avenged 2 consecutive Ole Miss losses by winning a shootout in Oxford and it went to Fayetteville and blew out Arkansas by 3 scores. Revisionist history doesn’t suggest that was a gauntlet because USC wasn’t in peak form yet while Arkansas and Ole Miss went a combined 5-11 in SEC play that season.
Unlike 2010 when Alabama had 3 consecutive weeks of ranked opponents, none of those 2016 games vs. ranked foes were in consecutive weeks. If there’s an argument for the 2010 schedule instead of 2016 or 2021, that’s it. Waiting at the end of that 2010 stretch was a South Carolina squad fresh after a bye week. In 2016, none of Alabama’s 3 ranked foes in the first half had the benefit of coming off a bye week.
Among those 4 likely ranked foes in the first 6 games of 2021, only Ole Miss will be coming off the bye week. And that game, unlike the other 3, will be played in Tuscaloosa. Still, though. Lane Kiffin’s squad is loaded with returning production after it put up 48 points and 647 yards of offense against Saban’s defense last year. Yet in terms of degree of difficulty, that game is No. 3 or No. 4 on Alabama’s first-half slate.
At No. 1 and No. 2? Pick your poison. It’s either going to Florida in Week 3 or going to Texas A&M in Week 6 (the game in College Station is a week after Ole Miss). That’s 2 teams coming off New Year’s 6 bowl appearances that could be ranked in the top 15 for those matchups. In ESPN’s post-spring power rankings, A&M is at No. 7 and Florida is at No. 17.
But there’s something else that’s worth mentioning. Florida’s first 2 games are vs. FAU and at South Florida. Then Alabama comes to town … in what’ll likely be in front of a full capacity crowd. Sorry, FAU. That’s the first real home game on Florida’s slate, and dare I say, The Swamp will be rockin’. Add in the fact that weird SEC scheduling only sent Saban to The Swamp once since he’s been at Alabama (back in 2011) and yeah, that atmosphere will be second to none.
Fast forward 3 weeks. What do you think College Station will be like on Oct. 9? You know, when Jimbo Fisher welcomes his former boss after saying he was going to beat his “you know what” while he’s at Alabama. If the Aggies can get through those first 5 games unblemished, which should happen considering they’re expected to be a double-digit favorite in all of those matchups, get ready.
It’ll feel like 2013 all over again.
(People forget that the 2013 showdown was actually a better overall game than 2012, which had a ton of early fireworks as the Johnny Manziel Heisman game, but not nearly as many as 2013. That Mike Evans 95-yard touchdown … mercy.)
Don’t mistake that as my way of saying Haynes King is going to be the 2021 version of Manziel. And obviously, Alabama still won that 2013 game. Saban wouldn’t mind if it was a repeat of 2013 if the final result stayed the same. But this should be A&M’s best shot at Alabama after it had 9 offensive players selected in Round 1 of the last 2 NFL Drafts. The Aggies return what’s easily the best group of skill players that Fisher has had and with a wealth of experience in the secondary, it might not be a given that Alabama hits 400 passing yards and 4 touchdowns through the air with so many new pieces in the passing game.
It’s probably difficult for Alabama fans to consider Oct. 9 a real threat considering that in 240 minutes of football against Saban (3 games at A&M and 1 at Florida State), Fisher has led for just 6 minutes and 29 seconds, and he has yet to keep it within 2 scores of Alabama.
There’s also the whole “23-0 against his former assistants” thing working in Saban’s favor (and against Fisher’s). Going back to the Florida game, Saban’s career record vs. Mullen is 10-0. Once again, it’s worth remembering that Saban’s active SEC East winning streak dates to 2010.
Oh, and in case that wasn’t enough, Saban hasn’t lost a game in the front half of the schedule since the 2015 Ole Miss game. That’s 33 consecutive “front half of the schedule” wins for Saban. Since the last time he lost a game in the front half of the schedule, all the guy has done is earn 5 national championship berths and win 3 more rings.
Throw all of that out there and it almost seems silly to consider the possibility that his team could get tripped up. Scroll down to the comments and surely you’ll see that point made.
It doesn’t change the reality that getting through the first 6 games of 2021 without a loss would be a whale of a feat, and probably an under-appreciated one. Saban would downplay it.
But if he can get his new-look team through his most battle-tested first half to date, the man who has done it all will add a large feather to his straw hat.