In these restless, anxious midsummer weeks before the start of training camp and the run-up to another college football season, Nick Saban always seems to become the centerpiece of an increasingly familiar question: How long can he dominate?
After Alabama’s 2015 national championship, Saban’s supremacy once again became the main coaching story of a college football season, but it’s easy to forget just how tenuous his career seemed to be at the start of that 2015 season… and in the months leading up to it.
The advent of the College Football Playoff changed the landscape in a very simple way for Saban and Alabama. Instead of having to win just one postseason contest after the SEC Championship Game, the Tide had to win two. When Saban was outcoached by Urban Meyer in the first-ever round of College Football Playoff semifinals two seasons ago, the question certainly raced across the mind of every pundit: Had Saban’s sweet spot — the Bowl Championship Series — represented his best annual chance to stockpile national titles? Was Alabama’s superiority a thing of the past?
Then came the 2015 season and that early loss — at home — to Ole Miss, the second straight season in which the Crimson Tide could not solve Hugh Freeze’s forces. Alabama — without a national title in 2013 and 2014 — immediately stood on the ledge with no margin for error. The quarterback spot was a question mark. The defense was less than airtight. Plenty of smart commentators — people not inclined to knee-jerk opinion — either wrote new columns questioning the durability of Saban’s reign, or they pointed to previous columns in which they predicted a decline, all because of the difficulty of continuing to feed the beast in college football.
The beast: Insatiable appetites married with relentlessly high annual expectations.
Urban Meyer, as great as he is — Saban’s one true peer in terms of present-tense coaching quality — burned out after half a decade at Florida.
Pete Carroll didn’t quite last a full decade at USC. He was a victim of his own negligence, yes, but also outside forces, especially what we can now see (several years later) as the NCAA’s severe overreach. (USC’s waywardness is laughably insignificant compared to what’s been revealed at Penn State, Baylor and even a not-punished program such as Tennessee in recent years.)
Bob Stoops regained his mojo last season at Oklahoma, but the Sooners’ 2015 resurgence was also instructive in that it showed how hard it is to maintain the top-tier excellence Stoops delivered from 2000 through 2008 in Norman. He needed to walk in the wilderness for several seasons before returning to prominence last year.
Prolonged stays on the mountaintop — not just being one of several contenders, but being in the heart of the national championship chase — are rare. Auburn has poked its head into the race every now and then, only to completely recede from view for the next few seasons before making another run at the brass ring. Stanford and Michigan State have begun to entrench themselves at the highest reaches of the sport’s pecking order, but they will both start fresh at the quarterback position this year. The longevity of their excellence will be sorely tested in 2016.
College football is a place for the old-money powers. It will always be easier to recruit at the Alabamas and Ohio States of the world than in other places, but even then, being relentlessly excellent — not just a program which occasionally chases glory in the way Kirk Ferentz and Iowa seem to do — is exhausting.
That fatigue appeared to be setting in for Nick Saban last September, fresh off the loss to Ole Miss. A third straight season without a national title appeared to be emerging. If career obituaries weren’t being written about The Hound — Alabama’s modern-day answer to The Bear — a lot of columnists were certainly voicing the idea that Saban’s most fruitful period in Tuscaloosa had reached its apex. Greatness might still emerge from time to time, but it could not be expected — not at the same level, at any rate.
Saban hasn’t lost a game since.
We — and by we, I mean sportswriters — have the desire to be first in terms of making a prediction or calling a shot. As soon as a great athlete begins to fade from his peak (think of Tiger Woods or Roger Federer), or as soon as a coach so thoroughly accustomed to crushing opponents encounters a few seasons in which the ball doesn’t bounce his way, the ego of the writer — I am not exempt from this inclination — wants to make the revealing insight or throw down the grand proclamation before his peers can:
That was the night it all began to change. That was the moment the glory days were lost forever.
You know what that means — you’ve read that kind of column before in some form or fashion.
Saban seemed to have arrived at that moment against Ole Miss roughly 10 months ago. He then proceeded to win another national championship.
Maybe, just maybe, Saban will continue to successfully feed the beast in Tuscaloosa as long as he damn well pleases. Until he decides he’s had enough, he should be given the benefit of the doubt in this particular respect.