For Alabama, the road to another championship gets no easier from here on out

Nick Saban’s appearance at halftime of the Big Ten championship game Saturday night had all the pomp and circumstance of a breaking-news presidential address, with breathless promotion beforehand, deferential platitudes from Fox commentators and a solemn atmosphere looming over it all as Saban made a last-minute campaign pitch for his Alabama Crimson Tide to join the College Football Playoff.

“I think the whole goal is to get the best teams in,” Saban said. “What I would say to the [College Football Playoff] committee or anyone else is if we played any of the teams that are on the edge of getting in, would we be the underdog or would we be the favorite?”

Over the course of four minutes and 50 seconds, Saban threw everything possible at the wall, from Vegas point spreads to margin of defeat to quality of opposition to end-of-season strength to Bryce Young’s injury.

It was a little bit savvy, a little bit pathetic. And it almost worked.

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Had TCU lost in regular time, had the Horned Frogs suffered a double-digit margin of defeat, had Max Duggan not wept his way into the hearts of even the coldest college football zealots — Bama fans excepted, of course — Saban’s team might well be preparing to face Georgia one more time in the playoff. Instead, Alabama is headed to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl — a destination bowl for most teams, a frustrating what-could-have-been business trip for the Tide.

Why almost no one is crying for Nick Saban, Alabama

So close, and yet so far away. That summed up the verdict on Saban’s appeal, but it also sums up the Tide’s season. No one would consider this year a success by Alabama standards, and yet Alabama was a point away from a berth in the playoffs, four total points away from an undefeated season. That’s how narrow the margin for error is in college football, and how punishing even a single error can be.

In the wake of the loss to Tennessee, when tens of thousands of delirious Vols fans stormed the field at Neyland Stadium to celebrate their first victory over Alabama in the Saban era, a meme began circulating among Tide faithful. Full of dorky, haughty language generally employed by people who take "World of Warcraft" or "Call of Duty" too seriously, its basic message was this: Go ahead, enjoy your little celebration. When you beat us, it’s the high mark of your year, and you’ll remember it forever. When we beat you … it’s just another Saturday.

It’s condescending, it’s annoying, it’s why nobody sheds tears for Alabama missing the playoffs … and it’s also dead-on correct.

Alabama’s brand is so strong that seasons which would be pinnacles for other universities become evidence that the Tide dynasty is crumbling. But the moment when Alabama fans storm the field after beating an Ole Miss or a Tennessee might not be as far away as they’d like to think.

The Alabama dynasty isn’t dead, not yet. But it’s about to face its greatest challenge.

Alabama and Nick Saban are on the outside looking in this year. (Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Alabama and Nick Saban are on the outside looking in this year. (Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Biggest threats to Alabama's dynasty

Every dynasty, from world history to pop culture to sports, dies in the same way. Doesn’t matter if you’re talking about China or the Beatles or the New England Patriots, the same factors contribute to the decline and fall of the once-mighty, often with shocking speed. Pride and self-satisfaction lead to corruption and indifference to changing conditions. The world beyond the dynasty keeps hammering at the gates, and what worked to get the dynasty on top doesn’t work to stay there. At some point, the ground has shifted too much for the dynasty to keep its footing, and the statues come crumbling down.

Tide fans have spent the past decade or so getting high on their own supply; more than a hand's worth of championships will do that to a fan base. But as long as Nick Saban rules Alabama, in-house discipline and focus won’t be a problem. He has demonstrated over the past decade and a half an uncanny ability to keep his team and his coaches pointed in the same direction, changing course as the on-field game has changed around him. His Tide teams have won national championships with soul-crushing defenses, rock-breaking running games and quick-strike passing, whatever the needs of the day demanded.

There has been sloppiness, and there have been mistakes — see both of Alabama’s losses this season — but the Tide have remained in the championship conversation every single year because of Saban’s ability to adjust to new on-field threats.

Now, though, Alabama faces off-field challenges unlike anything Saban’s ever seen in his entire tenure. The combination of NIL, the transfer portal and the expanded playoff mean that Alabama now has a much more challenging road to the national championship, and a much less stable roster to field.

All three of these factors introduce more (officially sanctioned) chaos into the college football environment, and if there’s one thing Saban can’t abide, it’s chaos. He has railed against the lack of regulation in the NIL space — like most other coaches, he endorses the infamous “guardrails” argument, which seems to apply to only players, not coaches’ salaries.

"There's got to be some uniformity and protocol of how name, image and likeness is implemented," Saban said this past summer. "How does this impact competitive balance in college athletics? And is there transparency to maintain fairness across the board in terms of college athletics?" (Try not to laugh too hard at Nick Saban of Alabama expressing concern about "competitive balance.")

As for the transfer portal — the portal means that the competition can level up in a hurry; transfer-portal QBs were in large part responsible for the losses Alabama suffered at Tennessee and LSU. Alabama ranked only 41st in On3’s 2022 Transfer Portal Rankings. And as fans of strong regular-season teams that wilt in the playoffs know all too well, the introduction of more teams into a playoff (it will expand from four to 12 in 2024) only increases the odds that a lower-ranked team will have the game of its life and knock out a higher seed.

Why you can't count out the Crimson Tide

None of this is to say that Alabama is definitively on the way out. The Tide have stormed right through every dire “end of the dynasty!” prediction from about 2011 onward. Next season, there’s a strong possibility Alabama could surf through the last four-team playoff and win the 2023 season's national championship, even given the imminent departures of Young and defensive icon Will Anderson Jr.

Saban’s 2023 recruiting class currently ranks No. 1 in the nation, according to Rivals.com. When you recruit well to start, and keep your best players in-house, you don’t need to patch many holes through the portal.

When Alabama has tapped the portal, it has done so to great advantage, such as snaring running back Jahmyr Gibbs from Georgia Tech and turning him into a key weapon. Young’s replacement might be out there somewhere right now, ready to leap from a middling Power Five school onto center stage. As for NIL — whatever Saban may think of it philosophically, he has created an attractive landscape, one where players can reap substantial revenues while in Tuscaloosa.

“Our players made over $3 million in name, image and likeness [in 2021],” Saban said prior to the season, a savvy little aside that surely drew the attention of four- and five-star high schoolers. “We have a great brand at Alabama, so players … their value there is going to be enhanced because of the value that our brand can help them create.”

Georgia is dominant, LSU is ascendant, Tennessee is building a foundation and Auburn is back to being as likely to blow up anyone else’s season as its own. Even with an ever-more-challenging SEC, Alabama is still one of the conference’s prime movers. For the moment.

Now, when Saban leaves Tuscaloosa? That’s a whole different story. Alabama is not even close to ready to face that one yet.

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Contact Jay Busbee at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.