Alabama excellence begins with enjoyment of the pursuit

Alabama team and Nick Saban

Nick Saban’s public spat with Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher is in many ways an unremarkable, even boring, episode. Many don’t see it that way, but there’s a case to be made that while sparks flying certainly creates the appearance of high drama.

By Matt Zemek

The underlying substance is much more ordinary. Saban and Jimbo are engaged in a turf battle, defending their own interests and their respective schools’ viewpoints. To that extent, there’s nothing especially unique about this drama. What makes it different is the new NIL landscape, but coaches engaging in a turf battle is hardly a fresh plot line.

If there is value to any of this, at least from an Alabama perspective, it is simply this: Nick Saban is as hungry and driven as ever. That’s the big takeaway from this series of events.

If you were looking for a sign, a tell, that Saban is losing the mustard on his fastball as he gets older, nice try. That isn’t happening right now, which is the best possible news Alabama can have as it prepares for another season and another run at a national championship.

Replicating greatness is something Alabama and Saban fully know how to do. Yet, as Georgia has its first taste since the 1981 season of pursuing back-to-back national championships, Alabama is fully versed in the art of going the distance and then doing so all over again the next year.

alabama championsSaban has won back-to-back national titles at Alabama. He did it in 2012 and 2013. He has reached national title games four straight years (2015-2018) and in a separate back-to-back stack, 2020-2021. Saban is aiming for a third straight appearance in the national championship game this season. If he does make the big game in mid-January, he will have made seven national title games in an eight-year span. Clearly, he knows how to run the full race, accept the final outcome, and come back at it next September refreshed and ready for another string of battles.

That is the quality Alabama needs this year. Reveling in the competition, enjoying the battle instead of feeling it to be a burden, is the tonic which keeps the Crimson Tide rolling.

The biggest reason for optimism in the Alabama camp entering the 2022 campaign is that last year’s team frankly wasn’t all that great, but found a way to get to the national championship game in spite of its flaws. Alabama’s offensive line was several notches worse than the 2020 group of road-graders who enabled Mac Jones, Najee Harris, and Heisman winner DeVonta Smith to take flight. The enormity of Alabama’s deficiencies up front was exposed by LSU and then Auburn late in the 2021 season. Alabama played ugly games, its offense stuck in the mud and unable to truly shake free. Alabama needed the mother of all lucky breaks – Auburn running back Tank Bigsby inexplicably going out of bounds instead of draining clock late in regulation – to score a very late tying touchdown in the Iron Bowl and eventually beat the Tigers in overtime to keep its playoff dreams alive. Alabama played with house money as an underdog to Georgia in the SEC Championship Game and maxed out, but make no mistake: The Tide overachieved last season. They didn’t have the very best horses in the stable.

This year, it should be different … or rather, it should be back to normal.

Alabama’s offensive line should be better. Bryce Young comes back with another year of experience. He should be a much more polished player. The rough edges which were a part of Bama’s 2021 offense might not go away completely, but they certainly should be reduced in severity and frequency.

Texas A&M – the team which upset Alabama last year – must go to Tuscaloosa. Auburn, which has been a thorn in Bama’s side in Jordan Hare Stadium, must go to Tuscaloosa. The SEC game most likely to present a challenge to Alabama is the road trip to Oxford, which bothered Saban when Hugh Freeze was Ole Miss’s head coach. Lane Kiffin will face a tall task in trying to topple his former boss, but the home-road rotation in this year’s SEC schedule likely makes the Rebels the foremost obstacle to an unbeaten season for Alabama.

Even if Alabama should lose that game, however, it ought to hold serve at home and win its other road games, including LSU, where Brian Kelly will probably need more than one year to get the Tigers to a top-tier level of quality after replacing Ed Orgeron. Assuming Alabama gets through the regular season at 11-1, it should love its chances against Georgia in an SEC Championship Game rematch. Saban has had Kirby Smart’s number over the years, and even though Georgia won the national title last January, Alabama controlled the first 20 minutes of that contest and was dealt a brutal twist of fate when Jameson Williams got hurt.

Assuming Alabama doesn’t get hit by the injury bug at wide receiver or other positions, the Tide would certainly deserve the benefit of the doubt in a potential matchup against Georgia. The Tide know how to use their speed and get their skill people in open space against Georgia’s defense. The more one sizes up the full landscape of the SEC and factors in the caliber of rosters along with the difficulty of each team’s schedule, the stage is set for Alabama to do what it normally does: win the SEC and make the national championship game.

Last season, Alabama overachieved to reach college football’s ultimate final battle in January. This season, making that same big stage – a routine business trip for Saban – will be a minimum expectation for the Crimson Tide.

No one should be particularly worried about their ability to get back to the place where they know they belong. The Crimson Tide have a coach who is as feisty and hungry as ever. That’s the foundation for another long-distance run to the pinnacle of this sport.

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