1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …

This strange trend is so predictable, so undeniable, you may as well hand over the national championship trophy to Nick Saban before the season even begins.

Alabama has never gone more than 2 seasons under Saban without a national title.

From Year 1 in 2007 to last season, the Tide has had 3 different sets of 2 seasons without a national title — and all were followed by a championship.

— 2007-2008 (2009 national champions).
— 2013-2014 (2015 national champions).
— 2018-2019 (2020 national champions).

Now here comes 2023, on the heels of back-to-back non-national title seasons. But this season is unlike any other, arriving with a new offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator — and a whole lot of questions with a new starter at the most important position on the field.

“I look at every season like I just took the job,” Saban said last month at a spring press availability.

But this time there’s an added philosophical question, one that Saban himself has made clear: Can Alabama reassert itself physically on the lines of scrimmage — and impose its will on teams?

Think about that. The biggest bully on the block for the past 15 years has lost its mojo on the lines of scrimmage — and it has filtered down and affected everything.

The way the Tide run the ball and protect the QB. The way they rush the quarterback and stop the run, and by proxy, cover in the secondary.

The very foundation of the dynastic run Saban has built in Tuscaloosa.

That tough, nasty attitude on the lines of scrimmage set up everything. It made the defense feared and the offense balanced, and made All-Americans out of game managers at quarterback.

It developed clean pockets and extended precious progression time in the pass game, allowing elite quarterbacks and wide receivers to play so well — and win Heisman Trophies — that Saban embraced college football’s new vertical offense trend like few have.

The Tide, everyone, was chucking it all over the place.

Now here we are in that familiar position of 2 straight seasons without a championship, and yet another series of questions about the vulnerability of the greatest coach and the greatest run in the history of the sport. It would be easy to proclaim that we’re doomed to repeat history if we don’t learn from it.

Why wouldn’t we think Alabama will get it straight, flip the switch and add another remarkable run by snapping another 2-year string without winning it all?

Because this time it’s different.

This time, Alabama is looking up at Georgia instead of technically still looking down at everyone else. This time, there are massive questions about an offensive line that has given up 63 sacks (think how much larger that number would’ve been without Bryce Young’s escapability) and 167 tackles for loss over the past 2 seasons.

This time, there’s newness everywhere — at critical spots on the roster and in the coaching staff. Saban already is talking about finding leadership and resetting the standard.

This feels different, unlike anything in the previous 16 seasons.

“It’s great to have continuity, especially in leadership positions,” Saban said. “But this is not something that we don’t have some experience at making sort of adaptations, being flexible, letting people add things that they know will be beneficial to us. Contribute to how we can fix some of the problems that we’ve had in the past.”

2. The QB conundrum

Before we go further and down the rabbit hole of how a new quarterback could make this tenuous situation more difficult, it’s beneficial to learn from history.

In those specific previous 3 seasons chasing a national title, Alabama did so with a new starter at quarterback. All were critical — and in 1 case, the difference — in winning a national title.

— AJ McCarron’s first season as a starter in 2011 was game management, but he played flawlessly in the BCS National Championship victory against LSU.

— Jake Coker’s first season as a starter in 2015 played out almost identically to McCarron’s. A smart, safe game manager for much of the season — followed by the 3 biggest games of the season in the SEC Championship Game and 2 Playoff games.

— Then there’s Mac Jones, whose first season as a starter (he finished the last 3 games of 2019 for injured Tua Tagovailoa) was the greatest single season in school history (until Young broke the records a year later).

Jones had 3 years’ experience and 3 starts in the system. Coker had 3 years of experience (at FSU and Alabama), and McCarron was Greg McElroy’s backup in 2010.

Jalen Milroe, who spent 2 seasons behind Young, played 6 quarters last season — and an argument can be made that he saved a tough road game at Arkansas, and won the Texas A&M game.

In those 2 games — with Alabama playing conservatively to protect Milroe — he threw for 176 yards, and ran for 172 yards and accounted for 5 TDs (1 rush).

He had accuracy issues, and like all first-time quarterbacks, he didn’t deal well with pressure. The problem with the idea of Milroe starting in 2023, and slowly and steadily improving week to week (see: McCarron, Coker as 1st-year starters) is the loss of Alabama’s imposing lines of scrimmage.

They eliminated any and all mistakes from the 2011 and 2015 seasons, allowing McCarron and Coker to develop at their pace. The game is different now, and an efficient passing game is critical.

How quickly can Milroe — or redshirt freshman Ty Simpson, or freshmen signees Eli Holstein and Dylan Lonergan — develop under new OC/QBs coach Tommy Rees if the Tide are still struggling with protection, and/or struggling to create space in the run game?

You can be as confident as you want in Rees and his ability to assimilate to Alabama, but it won’t mean anything unless the offensive line under 2nd-year coach Eric Wolford gets better.

3. Reloading again, The Epilogue

In any other time, in most any other situation, the bet is Alabama and it’s not even a question.

The program has always had better players, has always been able to reload and develop and find what it takes to return to the top of the mountain.

Saban’s greatest gift as a coach — among his many elite qualities — has been his ability to convince a roster stacked with blue-chip recruits who have been to the mountaintop, that the prize on top is even better this time around.

They’re not reaching it without massive improvement from the offensive line — no matter who plays quarterback.

There are 15 linemen on the roster, and the best 5 will play. Not the best 5 at their specific position.

If that means center Darrian Dalcourt moves to guard, or right tackle JC Latham moves to the left side, so be it. If it means true freshmen — OTs Kadyn Proctor, Miles McVay — have to play, or starters from last year aren’t guaranteed spots, that’s how you change the mentality.

Eric Wolford hasn’t forgotten how to coach; he’s among the elite in the game at any level. While the unit got marginally better last season (and benefited greatly from Young, the magician), Year 2 comes with better, hungry and motivated players.

They’re talking about setting the tone up front, and intimidating and punishing defenses. Imposing their will once again, like they did for so many years when defenses were stressed any number of ways.

And if they don’t? Alabama quarterbacks will be chucking it all over the place again.

Without a magician at quarterback to make it right.

4. Embracing competition

The most intriguing quarterback competition of the spring never really had a chance after all.

Ole Miss rolled into spring drills with 3 quarterbacks competing for the starting job, and it appears incumbent Jaxson Dart has done nothing to lose his lead.

In fact, he has gotten stronger in his command of the offense.

Rebels coach Lane Kiffin praised Dart after last week’s scrimmage, even though Dart hasn’t really been pushed. Oklahoma State transfer Spencer Sanders has been dealing with a shoulder injury since late last season, and he and LSU transfer Walker Howard still are learning a new system.

While that doesn’t mean Sanders is out of the competition, it most certainly means Dart realizes what’s in front of him — and has gotten better because of it.

That, more than anything, is what Kiffin and OC/QBs coach Charlie Weis Jr. wanted from the competition. Players pushing each other — and the guy who started 13 games in 2022 realizing he has to get better.

5. The Weekly 5

The top 5 post-spring to-do list items for new Auburn coach Hugh Freeze.

1. Find another quarterback in the spring portal. Of the 3 QBs on campus, Robby Ashford is the safest choice.

2. Find a pass rush. The staff will fast track the development of freshman edge Keldric Faulk, but the portal could be an option here, too.

3. Team chemistry. There’s a lot of moving parts here. It’s player buy-in, player trust, and the new staff knowing when the push and/or have patience with change.

4. Reshaping the offensive line. Will 3 investments in the transfer portal —LT Dillon Wade (Tulsa), RT Gunner Britton (WKU), C Avery Jones (ECU) — win jobs and solidify the unit?

5. Completely sell tempo offense: Freeze wants to go fast, and potentially has a run game that can make it work (think Ole Miss) with RBs Jarquez Hunter, Damari Alston and Sean Jackson.

6. Your tape is your resume

An NFL scout analyzes a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Tennessee edge Bryon Young.

“Can he be an every down guy? He’s a little undersized, unless you’re in an odd front he’s just firing off the edge. He’s a raw talent, and is really just growing into his game. Once he begins to better understand the game, and what it’s going to take for him to beat bigger, smarter, more experienced offensive tackles in our league, he has a chance. He has to get a variety of moves, and that comes with understanding what he can and can’t get away with. All young edge guys have to see it to learn it.”

7. Powered Up

This week’s Power Poll, and 1 big thing: best Super Bowl era draft pick in school history.

1. Georgia: RB Terrell Davis. Champ Bailey and Fran Tarkenton are close, but Davis packed so much elite play into injury-shortened career.

2. Alabama: G John Hannah. Top 5 greatest offensive lineman in NFL history.

3. Tennessee: QB Peyton Manning. But it’s really, really close with DT Reggie White. Only the position (quarterback) makes the difference.

4. LSU: C Kevin Mawae. He and Alan Faneca have near identical resumes, and both played on the interior.

5. Texas A&M: DE Von Miller. A lock for the Hall of Fame when he retires, and the most feared pass rusher of the past decade.

6. Kentucky: C Dermontti Dawson. Widely considered the best center in NFL history.

7. Ole Miss: QB Eli Manning (barely, over Archie). Hard to argue with 2 Super Bowl rings — even if the biggest competition is your dad.

8. Mississippi State: LB DD Lewis. Played in 5 Super Bowls with the Cowboys (won 2), and holds team record for playoff games played (27).

9. Arkansas: WR Lance Alworth. NFL 75th anniversary and 100th anniversary team member, and AFL and Super Bowl champion.

10. South Carolina: DE John Abraham. 2-time All-Pro, and an elite pass rusher in the 2000s. Had 133.5 career sacks.

11. Florida: RB Emmitt Smith. The premier running back of his time, and the NFL’s all-time leading rusher.

12. Missouri: TE Kellen Winslow. The best tight end of his era, and a member of the 75th and 100th anniversary NFL teams.

13. Auburn: LB Kevin Greene. Former 5th-round pick is a Hall of Famer with 160 career sacks.

14. Vanderbilt: OT Will Wolford. A 12-year starter in the NFL, and 3-time Pro Bowler.

8. Ask and you shall receive

Matt: Realistically, can any team other than Georgia or Alabama win the SEC? Not just now, but the foreseeable future. — Kim Sorenson, Charlotte.


The case for Georgia and Alabama is easy because they have the 2 best coaches and recruiters in college football. When you can recruit and develop, that’s a difficult tandem to beat. Add to that, every financial and geographical advantage, and it’s easy to make that proclamation.

But there are numerous schools, with the right coach, that have those advantages and can win the SEC: LSU, Florida, Tennessee, Auburn, Texas A&M, Texas and Oklahoma.

Brian Kelly showed last season, in Year 1, that he’s already close with LSU — a program that has won a national title with 3 different coaches since 2003 (Saban, Les Miles, Ed Orgeron).

If the Jimbo Fisher/Bob Petrino experiment works — a big if — the Aggies are talented enough to beat any team.

Florida hasn’t won the SEC since 2008 because it still hasn’t found the right coach, and Tennessee looks like it could have found the right coach in Josh Heupel.

Alabama and Georgia are hot now. It doesn’t mean someone else can’t get there. In fact, Georgia wasn’t there — for 40 years —until Kirby Smart arrived.

9. Numbers

67. There’s a sense of urgency at Arkansas this offseason — and not just because the Hogs were a handful of plays from reaching 10 wins in 2022.

But because the Hogs can’t miss on the last opportunity for QB KJ Jefferson, who will leave Fayetteville with numerous school records.

Jefferson has 7,245 total yards (1,429 rush) and 67 TDs (19 rush), but is only 16-9 as a starter — with 5 career losses of 3 points or less. How much different does Jefferson’s career look with those 5 losses turned to wins?

He’s that close — and so is Arkansas — to changing the way he’s perceived.

10. Quote to note

Tennessee coach Josh Heupel on freshman QB Nico Iamaleava: “He’s continuing to grow, he’s a long way from being where we need him. That’s understandable. He’s continued to get better every time he gets on the field, which is what you want to see from the young guys.”