TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Every year, University of Alabama fans have heard the same thing, and every year they’ve pretty much laughed at the connotation.
The dynasty is dead. Nick Saban’s best years are behind him. This is the season that the Crimson Tide shows it’s in decline.
Alabama’s response has simply been to reload and go back to work. It remains the only program to land a spot in the College Football Playoff every year. Four playoffs, four invites.
Only this time the dynasty label may be on the line.
Although there’s no clear-cut definition for a dynasty at the college football level, three national championships over a six-year period is considered the minimum requirement. It can be extended beyond that with continued success, and Saban has set a new standard with the most dominating decade the sport has ever seen.
In 2015, the Crimson Tide captured a fourth national crown in seven years, which was unprecedented during the modern era of the sport. So were Saban’s five national championships over the previous 11 seasons he’d coached at this level, and last year he came one second away from notching another.
However, dynasties are something that are defined only with the aid of time and perspective. This isn’t to suggest that Alabama can’t come back and win the national championship next season or the year after that, but if it falters a second straight time to Clemson, it might signal the end in that respect.
The Crimson Tide would have won just one national title over the past five years. The playoff appearances and three straight SEC championships not withstanding, Clemson can claim to be the best program in the nation if the reigning champions do it again, and with a different quarterback.
That only adds to the intrigue of the upcoming Sugar Bowl matchup on Jan. 1, as if enough wasn’t at stake already.
Of course, it’s games like these that attract a lot of prize prospects to Alabama.
“I think they’ve had five No. 1 recruiting classes out of the last six years, which has got to make him the greatest recruiter in the history of college football,” Steve Spurrier said. “Arguably, they’ve got the greatest collection of football players ever assembled for a college team, if the recruiting services are correct, and they’re pretty much correct.”
The thing is, Spurrier made that comment at SEC media days in 2014. Saban has now won seven straight recruiting titles while most of the league has crumbled into disarray.
He’s also done so despite players leaving early for the NFL, coaches being regularly hired away and the demands of always being in the spotlight as Alabama has been ranked No. 1 at some point of every season since 2008.
“I think it probably intimidated some people, it probably discouraged some people away,” offensive tackle Jonah Williams said about the depth chart when he arrived in 2016. “Anyone who would sign here, I already have a little bit of respect for, because they’re willing to come to an environment like this, where you’re expected to be the best.
“I think that’s what we live for. It’s what we work for here.”
This kind of thing isn’t supposed to happen. Numerous changes, including the 85-man scholarship limit — which has only been in effect since the 1994 season — were thought to guarantee parity in the sport.
But then Saban to Alabama happened and now this stretch is almost without peer. Among those that compare are Notre Dame in the 1940s, Oklahoma in the early 1950s and 1970s, and Miami in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
With top athletes who enlisted during World War II, Army went 27-0-1 from 1944-46. The 1944 team was so talented that coach Earl Henry “Red” Blaik proclaimed that the best game he saw his team play was a practice scrimmage.
Meanwhile, Miami held all the draft records, including most players selected in the first round of a single draft (six in 2004) and the most first-round selections in a span of two (10), three (15) and four years (19), but that was long after its dynasty years.
These are the things that Saban and Alabama are chasing, all legacy related, which is highlighted by one thing especially, winning championships.
Paul “Bear” Bryant was the only person who knew that better than Saban, but he’s also only college football coach to do maybe the only thing Saban has not: Coach two dynasties at Alabama, in the 1960s and the 1970s.