HOOVER, Ala. – If you look really hard at Alabama, if you lean in real close, you might note the appearance of some fissures in that considerable foundation. Right now they’re tiny, for sure, but they’re there.
The question is whether they might develop into anything that could cause a full-fledged crack, never mind a breach.
Certainly the rest of the SEC wouldn’t mind seeing somebody else in the league enjoy a little glory. The Crimson Tide is coming off yet another banner season under Nick Saban. They went 14-1 overall, 7-1 in the SEC, beat Florida in the SEC title game, then bested Michigan State and Clemson to claim the second College Football Playoff national championship. That’s four conference championships and four national titles under Saban’s watch — so far.
And Alabama will probably be picked to win another one here at SEC Football Media Days this week. Balloting will be tabulated Thursday afternoon as this four-day talk fest wraps up. There aren’t any official polls out just yet, but the Crimson Tide is No. 1 in ESPN’s Way-Too-Early Top 25 for 2016.
Indeed, they’re a tough bunch to bet against. Alabama has lost five SEC football games in five years under Saban. They put the ‘D’ in depth. They’ve been stacking up 5-star prospects like cordwood in Tuscaloosa for a while now.
That’s why when you start to think you might recognize a little weakness developing somewhere on the Tide’s roster, like at running back, for instance, where mega-star and massive-load-carrier Derrick Henry has moved on to the NFL, then you look a little closer and realize that the three unproven young backs they have waiting in the wings were all 5-star prospects. Pretty good odds they might find one decent runner out of that group.
But while there always seems to be a level of transition going on at Alabama, it seems a little deeper this time around. You start with the departure of longtime defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. He was so much more to the Crimson Tide than just a savvy defensive technician. He was truly a right-hand man for Saban, a true confidante and a magnetic recruiting force, particularly in the state of Georgia.
But Smart was just one of several notable coaching departures on the defensive side of the ball. He took secondary coach Mel Tucker with him to Athens as Georgia’s defensive coordinator. He also brought along Glenn Schumann, who excelled in the last four years in a behind-the-scenes role as defensive analyst.
The Crimson Tide also parted ways with defensive line Bo Davis, which is significant in a couple of different ways. Davis was credited for developing the Alabama’s extraordinary rotation that had them playing three-deep at three different up-front positions this past season. But Davis had to resign abruptly resigned in late April after allegedly lying to NCAA investigators about making impermissible recruiting visits. Information has been slow in coming out since then, but there remains the prospect that will develop in a full-blown NCAA inquiry or at least warrant some kind of sanctions.
As for the turnover in personnel, whether it be coaches or players, that’s standard operating procedure for the Tide. That’s what happens when you’re annually playing for titles. Other teams and the NFL are annually trying ply away your talent. Saban snapped up Georgia’s Jeremy Pruitt as defensive coordinator, the Buffalo Bills’ Karl Dunbar as defensive line coach and Kentucky’s co-defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley as secondary coach.
“We have (new) people, but they have experience,” Saban said Wednesday. “They have experience in our system. And it’s a very, very good group of guys and work well together. I think we’ll be able to be a very effective defensive staff.”
There have been other issues as well. On Wednesday, Saban and SEC Network personality Paul Finebaum had a spirited exchange over Saban’s vague disciplinary stance on offensive lineman Cam Robinson. The highly-touted junior offensive tackle was arrested along with teammate Hootie Jones in their hometown of Monroe, La., on felony weapons and marijuana charges back in the spring. Ultimately the local district attorney declined to prosecute, but Saban has refused to say whether Robinson will suspended or disciplined beyond undisclosed “in-house” punishment.
Sooner or later, one would think Saban’s age might become an issue, in perception at least if not reality. He turns 65 on Halloween this fall. But he doesn’t appear ready to slow down and seems just as intensely focused as ever on “the process.”
“We’ve obviously had some challenges,” Saban said. “For the third year in a row, I’m standing up here talking about somebody’s going to be a new quarterback for us. Somebody’s got to win that job. Somebody’s got to win the team. You know, that has not necessarily happened yet and, you know, I’m not going to sit up here and … give you some statistics on who’s winning the race and how the race is going and who’s ahead, are they on the back stretch or in the final turn. That’s something that’s going to happen probably in fall camp.”
No, Saban and the Alabama empire appear unshaken at the moment. The rest of the league just has to keep hammering away at those cracks.