HOOVER, Ala. – With another SEC title and national championship in the books, the Alabama dynasty continues to churn.
The Crimson Tide have won four of the last seven national championships, a level of dominance unseen since the mid-2000s USC Trojans teams. The prevailing question has shifted: Can anyone unseat Alabama, or will the rest of the SEC have to wait for coach Nick Saban to retire?
“I’ve said time and time again that Alabama is the gold standard of college football,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. “We’re motivated for those opportunities to play them.”
Building a dynasty
It remains tremendously difficult to sustain success, especially with the entire nation targeting the Crimson Tide. While some teams get figured out after long periods of success, Alabama seems to be the exception.
“When you commit to the University of Alabama, you know what you’re expected to do,” Alabama TE O.J Howard said. “We know what it takes.”
The expectation is national championships. Not just one either – multiple. Since Saban’s second recruiting class in 2008, each group has won at least two national championships.
While the Crimson Tide do some impressive things schematically on both ends, the primary difficulty in playing Alabama is execution. The program is a well-oiled machine.
“They know what they’re doing and do it every single time,” Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett said. “You know what’s coming at you, you just gotta beat it. They’re going to do their job, do it well and they’re not going to have any mistakes.
“You have to take them head-on and hope you can cause them to make mistakes because they’re not going to make any on their own because they’ve worked that hard to be that mentally tough.”
Alabama DE Jonathan Allen agreed that the Crimson Tide as a program have a strong work ethic. He believes it might be what sets Alabama apart.
“I know a lot of other guys from other teams, and I just feel like we work so much harder than them,” Alabama DE Jonathan Allen said. “We have workouts and rehabs – the process never stops. We put so much time into the process, which is probably why we’ve been able to keep sustained success for so long.”
Few players in the SEC have gotten a chance to beat the vaunted Crimson Tide. In the last three years, Ole Miss and Auburn are the only SEC teams to beat Alabama.
“You can’t escape the idea that they’ve been at the forefront of college football for quite some time now,” Texas A&M QB Trevor Knight said.
Knight was the signal-caller at Oklahoma in 2013 when the Sooners topped Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. He has never again come close to the numbers he put up that night. It doesn’t matter – the allure of being a quarterback that lit up Alabama sticks with him.
“To beat a team like that, you’ve got to prepare the right way and you’ve got to execute the right way,” Knight said. “Everyone has to be firing on all cylinders. The mentality can’t be, ‘Maybe can we win this game,’ it has to be, ‘We can win this game.’”
Ole Miss is the only team to beat Alabama each of the last two seasons. Even a spread offense led by a gun-slinging quarterback are a lottery ticket against Bama, but sometimes the right numbers come up.
“I think schematically, we do some things to allow us to have more successful plays than maybe a traditional offense against those good defenses,” Freeze said. “We like the challenge. I’m kind of made that way and I know our kids are made that way.”
But to attack Alabama right at the source, LSU CB Tre’Davious White believes it isn’t just about playing hard – it’s about innovation.
“You have to be mentally tough in this league,” White said. “You have to take the initiative every day. You have to bring something new to the table.”
Alabama is far from the only team with talent. Teams like Ole Miss, Georgia and LSU bring in more than enough talent to compete. At this point, none of them have been able to keep up with Saban’s Crimson Tide for a full season. Until a consistently worthy contender arrives, or Saban retires, that likely won’t change.
Picking from the tree
The SEC is a copycat league and Alabama is the standard to which all teams are held. In recent seasons, Florida (Jim McElwain), Georgia (Kirby Smart) and South Carolina (Will Muschamp) hired former Saban assistants to lead their programs.
“There’s a lot of excitement for me because these guys have opportunities,” Saban said. “I think it reflects favorably on our program and what we’ve done, and those guys all did a fantastic job for us.”
But at this point, the students still remain unable to defeat the master. Even former Saban assistant Mark Dantonio, the heralded head coach at Michigan State, saw his team get blown out 38-0 in the College Football Playoff.
If that’s not scary enough, Saban, 64, might not even be close to done.
“I think he can go forever,” McElwain said. “That’s just the way he’s wired. I haven’t seen one thing when we were around each other that week at the SEC championship game, I didn’t see one less bounce in his step, anything like that. The guy’s something special.”