In & around SEC football

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By this point, every college football fan knows Nick Saban’s success at Alabama has been historically significant. In the last seven seasons, Alabama has won at least 10 games each year and three national championships, three SEC championships while posting an overall record of 84-11. 

We’re all aware of Saban’s success, but the numbers are still staggering, especially in the modern era of college football. During this run, Alabama hasn’t even been an underdog since the 2009 SEC Championship Game against Florida. Alabama’s 32-13 victory signaled the unofficial commencement of the Saban Dynasty.

Since winning back-to-back titles in 2011 and 2012, Alabama has fallen short the last two seasons. By Nick Saban standards, this would probably be considered a “drought.” Auburn ended Alabama’s three-peat chances with the infamous Kick-Six in 2013, while last season Ohio State upset the Crimson Tide in the semifinals of the NCAA College Football Playoffs.

The loss to OSU was significant for several reasons. It was the first time since the 2005 season that an SEC team wouldn’t be playing for the national championship. More importantly, it was the first time since the 2008 SEC title game against Florida where it looked like the team that beat Alabama was definitively better than the Crimson Tide.

Ohio State was simply a better team than Alabama. Throughout the game, Urban Meyer outmaneuvered Saban and the Buckeyes executed much better. In most of Alabama’s other losses over the last few years, Saban’s team was usually better. For example, in both Iron Bowl losses since 2010, Alabama probably should’ve won. That wasn’t the case in the Sugar Bowl.

The most interesting dynamic of last season’s Sugar Bowl was the battle between the two coaches. When Nick Saban took the UA job, Urban Meyer was in the process of turning Florida into a national power. The Gators won two titles in three seasons and were well on their way to winning a third in 2009 before Saban took control of both the league and the country.

Since then, Meyer took the job at Ohio State, and although he’s in an entirely different conference, he has already begun to do the same thing to Saban that Saban did to him at Florida. The biggest difference is that Meyer is in a noticeably weaker conference, and he’ll have a better chance than Saban at making the playoffs each season.

Entering the 2015 season, there are more questions than usual about Saban’s team. Alabama certainly remains among the most talented teams in the country. In recent years, it was almost a given that the Crimson Tide would be the favorites to win the national title. This year, that status belongs to Ohio State. Alabama might not even be the favorites to win the SEC title. Instead, that could be in-state rival Auburn.

Saban always has recruited well, however, and the skill position players on the upcoming Alabama team will be some of the best in the country. Kenyan Drake is back from injury, and his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield will be crucial for the Alabama offense. Derrick Henry also returns, and he should get more carries this season after the departure of T.J. Yeldon. ‘Bama also lost star receiver Am-ari Cooper, and replacing him won’t be easy. It’s unclear who Alabama’s go-to receiver will be, but ArDarius Stewart, Chris Black and Robert Foster are all capable of making plays.

The quarterback battle will receive the most attention, but people seem to forget that signal-caller has never been the strength of a Nick Saban team. Jake Coker, David Cornwell, Blake Barnett and maybe a couple other players have a chance to start. Whoever wins the starting job will be fine, because Saban knows exactly what to ask of each of his quarterbacks.

The more important issue for Alabama is the offensive line. The biggest reason why Alabama hasn’t been able to win national titles the last two seasons is the lack or production from the men in the trenches. Alabama’s lines have been average the last two seasons, and it’s been especially noticeable in the games they’ve lost. 

In the Auburn game two years ago, the Bama O-line was unable to generate a push on a crucial fourth down that gave Auburn the ball back. Last year against Ohio State and Ole Miss, the right side of the line was practically nonexistent.

Cam Robinson returns for his sophomore season and might be the best left tackle in college football. However, the rest of the line is full of question marks.

If Saban is going to win his fifth title as a head coach, it will likely depend on whether his offensive line can consistently dominate as it did from 2009-2012.

The defense is loaded yet again, but one problem Saban hasn’t quite been able to solve is spread offenses. In two games towards the end of the year against the spread, Alabama gave up a combined 86 points. It’s rare to see a Saban defense struggle in that manner, and the secondary was the weakest link.

Cyrus Jones, Eddie Jackson and Tony Brown all return at corner, which was the position that struggled the most in 2014. All three players certainly are capable of making plays, but Jones and Jackson especially were inconsistent. Landon Collins left for the NFL, so Saban needs to find a quality pair of safeties.

The strength of the defense – and the team – will be the front seven. Reggie Ragland leads an Alabama linebacker corps that could be the one of the best in the country. ‘Bama will be able to stop the run and rush the passer, and the dominant front seven should be able to take some pressure off of the secondary.

The schedule does Alabama no favors, with the month of October being especially brutal. In October, the Tide has road games at both Georgia and Texas A&M, as well as a pair of home games against Arkansas and Tennessee. The season-ending road game at Auburn also figures to be one of the biggest games of the season in all of college football.

As strange as it sounds, it’s entirely possible that Saban’s run at Alabama has been underappreciated. He’s put the Crimson Tide in position to win six of the last seven national championships, which is a remarkable accomplishment. But dynasties eventually come to an end. Pete Carroll’s spectacular run at USC came to an unceremonious conclusion in 2009. Tom Osborne abruptly retired from Nebraska after the 1997 season amid the best five-year stretch in college football history.

So Saban should not be taken for granted. If Alabama isn’t quite as strong in 2015 as it has been in the past – and there’s a chance that could be the case – just remember how historic Saban’s run has been in Tuscaloosa. 

And if Saban somehow takes Alabama back to the Promised Land, that shouldn’t come as a surprise, either. 

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