(BVM) — Alabama has a No. 5 national ranking and is about to play in the Sugar Bowl. And some Bama fans are quite frustrated about it.
When both of those statements are simultaneously true, it says a lot about where the program has been. But what most people want to know is, “Where is it heading?”
Let’s be clear. Nobody has the answer to that question.
There have been other times in the last decade when folks thought Nick Saban’s run of dominance was coming to an end, only to see it accelerate and reach new heights. We may be witnessing another of those moments. Or, just maybe, the greatest dynasty the sport has ever known could finally be past its prime.
As we try to assess those possibilities, let’s look at the facts.
Nobody’s feeling bad for Bama
Alabama still has an immensely talented roster. It’s about a week away from signing what’s currently rated as the No. 1 class in the nation. And even though several highly-rated recruits from previous classes have recently announced their decisions to transfer out of the program, they will almost certainly be replaced by incoming transfers with a much better chance of being impact players in 2023.
So, despite also losing Bryce Young, Will Anderson and a few other upcoming NFL draft picks, the Tide roster will remain elite.
On the other hand, that was also true of the roster this season and last season, and those teams were rarely dominant against decent opponents the way Bama had been in the previous five years. The Crimson Tide played 18 regular-season games against Power 5 competition in 2021 and ’22, and they won eight of them by more than seven points (44%). From 2016 through 2020, that number was a whopping 89% (41 of 46).
It’s appropriate at this point to clarify that Alabama is 23-4 over the last two seasons and has not spent a single week ranked outside of the AP top 10. The Tide nearly won the national title last season and barely missed the College Football Playoff this year.
That perspective is important before we continue with this exercise.
What seems to be the problem?
Bama has three regular-season losses over a two-year span for the first time since 2010-11. So, what’s happened in these last two years?
Young, the only Heisman-winning QB in program history, was behind center for both seasons, but nobody would suggest the fault is his. Many Tide fans blame offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien. Others target defensive coordinator Pete Golding. And if both of those guys are in the crosshairs, it would seem that Saban also deserves some criticism.
It’s hard to get around the fact that the coaching staff is ultimately responsible. There has been no indication of locker-room strife or leadership issues. Either the game preparation and/or play calling has been lacking, the recent recruiting classes were overrated, or the players in those classes have been underdeveloped. And it could be a combination of those.
It’s also fair to wonder how much worse it might have looked if not for the aid of transfers. Jameson Williams was a huge part of the offense in 2021. This season, Jahmyr Gibbs was the leading rusher and leader in receptions, Jermaine Burton had the second-most receiving yards, and Tyler Steen started all 12 games at left tackle. Henry To’oTo’o was a key cog in the defense in both seasons. If not for those guys, Bama might’ve lost a few more games.
For close observers, it’s easy to look at certain position groups on this year’s team and say they aren’t as good as they used to be. But for all the top-ranked signing classes and first-round draft picks, the Crimson Tide’s dynasty hasn’t just been a product of talent. The program had been very consistent at doing the little things well and rarely making the kinds of mistakes that give lesser teams a chance to win.
That’s definitely not been the case this year. Alabama is currently the fourth-most penalized team in the nation and is on the verge of its first season with a negative turnover margin since 2007 (Saban’s first season in Tuscaloosa). Those are not the marks of a championship-contending team.
How will Bama respond?
It’s hard to believe any of this has escaped the notice of Saban, who reached the pinnacle of coaching, in part, due to his obsessive attention to detail. So, the question isn’t whether he’s noticed these problems or intends to fix them, but rather how he plans to go about it.
Will he make significant staff changes in the next few weeks? Which position groups will he look to upgrade from the transfer portal? Will a high-profile quarterback be on that wish list?
From the outsider’s perspective, next season projects to have the greatest uncertainty at that position since 2016, when redshirt freshman Jalen Hurts ultimately won the starting job during the season opener. The returning quarterbacks for 2023 figure to have one career start between them, but inexperience at QB hasn’t previously been an issue for Saban’s teams.
Bama has had a first-year starter at quarterback eight times under Saban, and those teams have won four national titles and been a combined 90-4 in the regular season. In other words, the rest of the team has always been good enough to carry a new signal-caller through some growing pains.
The only reason for Bama to pursue an experienced QB in the portal would be that the talent level has dipped – either among the quarterbacks or the rest of the roster… or both. It would, therefore, feel like a move of desperation if Bama goes after a quick fix at QB.
Then again, one of the keys to Saban’s success has been his ability to adjust to changes in the game throughout his career. So, maybe, hitting the portal for a quarterback upgrade wouldn’t really be as out of character as it might seem. It would simply be the latest example of Saban leveraging changes he really didn’t want in order to make his program even stronger.
So, before we declare the dynasty to be dead, let’s see what cards the Bama coach has left to play. He’s yet to go three straight seasons in Tuscaloosa without a national title, so it might be a little hasty to say the end has arrived until that actually occurs.
But it’s also true that he no longer has the premier program in the SEC. Georgia has earned that distinction over the last two seasons, which makes Bama an underdog in 2023.
Whether they’ll still have that label 12 months from now is what everyone is anxious to see.
Brad Edwards is a college football analyst for BVM Sports. He has covered the sport professionally since 1996 and is author of the book “Dynasty by the Numbers: Why Alabama Now Owns the Greatest Decade-Plus Run in College Football History.”