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Nick Saban may seem to be in cruise control, but he has Alabama going pedal to the metal

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All Alabama coach Nick Saban does is win. (AP Photo)

HOOVER, Ala. – SEC Media Days have a little bit of a NASCAR feel. There’s big color, backslaps, and bombast. There’s deep-fried charm along with snipes and sideswipes. The attention usually goes to the perceived slights, and this year was no exception: Florida’s Will Muschamp rips “Ohio;” Arkansas’ Bret Bielema takes aim at Auburn’s Gus Malzahn; Zach Mettenberger says his mechanics aren’t terrible like Tim Tebow’s; Jadeveon Clowney says Aaron Murray is scared; Steve Spurrier is … Steve Spurrier . It’s like Talladega without the fire suits.

But as in auto racing, the real story lies in the machine. And the machine is Alabama.

Nick Saban is not a garrulous gabber in the Spurrier mold. He doesn’t talk breathlessly like Muschamp or greet reporters by name like James Franklin, or boom from the podium like Bielema. He’s Jimmie Johnson: he just wins.

Saban has attended 12 SEC Media Days and won four national titles. If he wins a fifth this season, Alabama would be the first college football team ever to win three in a row. It would seem the formula is fairly simple: Alabama is bigger and faster than the other teams. But Saban knows his sport is not won on quickness and power alone. He pointed out Thursday that his team’s title run last season came down to a handful of plays: One play against LSU; one play against Georgia; one play against Texas A&M. If those plays all go Alabama’s way, the Tide is perfect. If all three go against Alabama, it’s a three-loss season and time for soul-searching. LSU lost three games last season by 13 total points; had those points gone the other way, Les Miles could have as many national titles at his school right now as Saban has at his.

This truth is the true engine for Alabama. Emotion is a wonderful force for a team of young men, yet precision is more powerful still. Surely the Tide is angry about what happened at the hands of Texas A&M last season, but anger will only lead Alabama to the doorstep of victory in College Station in September. It will only give them a chance to execute on that single key play that will determine the game.

This too is like NASCAR. The sport is a torrent of outsized emotions, horsepower and speed, but the margin of victory is almost too tiny to see. An adjustment on Tuesday could change Sunday, and therefore the entire season, and therefore a reputation.

Saban, like the driver of the 48 car, has heard the dynasty talk. But it’s hard for him to see the dynasty when seasons are reduced to games, and then to moments, and then to tweaks. He reminded the press Thursday that a quarter of his roster is different every season, which we all know but don’t fully grasp. The player in the red uniform is big and fast like the one he replaced, but he can’t possibly be prepared just by wearing it.

All the SEC coaches know this. Bielema is bold and brash, yet the first player he mentioned in his first Media Days speech was Travis Swanson, his center, who studies opponents’ tendencies so carefully that he knows their tells and twitches better than they do. Spurrier is the ultimate good ol’ boy, full of bluster, but ask anyone who’s met him: he has a photographic memory, and can recall specific plays from his first season at Duke. Muschamp is known as “Coach Boom” for his cartoonish temper, but he beat Johnny Football last year with a halftime adjustment that placed the best player in the nation into a suffocating swell of defenders. War analogies are exciting, but science wins the war.

It was noisy here this week. There was a constant din of voices blasted through speakers, reporters doing standups, fans screaming for autographs, and optimistic chatter from all sides. There were words, so many words that reams of paper from transcripts were piled a foot high on a long folding table by Thursday afternoon. Words, though, don’t mean too much when it’s time for the one or two or three plays that determine a season. “Coach, what will you tell your team at halftime?” is a popular question that has no relevant answer when there’s less than two minutes left. At that point, just like in the final turn of a race, there’s nothing left to say. At that point, the noise is loudest but the mind must be quietest.

And Nick Saban might have the quietest mind of all.

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