Michael Weinreb had a great article at Grantland today about the success that Nick Saban has brought to Alabama. Towards the end, he acknowledges the point that Bama's dynasty will fall. It must, because they all do. The question is: how?
We've seen plenty of great runs end due to a number of reasons. Let's look at a few coaches who fell off and see how their situations might apply to the Crimson Tide.
Burnout: Urban Meyer
Meyer's run at Florida ended in large part because he didn't handle the stress properly. He lost weight due to working instead of eating, his benign brain cyst caused blackouts under his high stress loads. and he developed esophageal spasms (which feel like heart-related chest pains). The monster of the job ate him up, and he had to take time off to reevaluate how he goes about his business.
Saban seems to handle the pressures of the job relatively well. He famously explodes into rage on the sidelines at times, but he's never been rushed to the hospital. He's had three high pressure jobs now at LSU, in the NFL, and at Alabama. He's doing fine, as far as any of us know. This one is not a likely cause of dynastic collapse.
Complacency: Pete Carroll
The amazing run that USC had under Coach Win Forever peaked in 2005, and it began to fall off after. Only once in his final four seasons across 2006-09 did any of his teams even come close to that level (2008). The teams blew out many opponents and still won most of their games, but they had repeated lapses like the bad loss to 7-6 UCLA in 2006, the horrendous loss to 4-8 Stanford in 2007, and the bad loss to 5-7 Washington in 2009.
Again, this doesn't seem to be a big concern at Alabama. After his first season in 2007, Saban has only lost one game to a team that didn't win at least 11 on the year (South Carolina, 2010). It's certainly possible for the program to slip into complacency, because no one is truly immune, but it doesn't appear to be a problem yet. This factor would be something to watch out for next year, though, because winning three titles in four years sure feels like a mountaintop.
Coaching Atrophy: Bobby Bowden
Complacency was certainly a factor in the fall at Florida State too, but a fall off of coaching was as much of or a bigger issue. Bowden's last elite team was his 2000 squad, and it's no coincidence that 2001 saw Mark Richt leave to go to Georgia. Bowden went the nepotism route and hired his underqualified son Jeff to replace Richt, and the offense was never the same. The team coasted on legendary DC Mickey Andrews' defenses for a while, but that advantage went away as the game passed him by in his final years.
Saban's staff sees turnover about as much as anyone else's does. Only Kirby Smart, the running backs coach (that non-Bama fans have never heard of), and the strength coach remain from his original 2007 staff. However, he's been able to replace quality with quality. Most visibly, Doug Nussmeier prevented the offense from skipping a beat without Jim McElwain. With Smart seemingly satisfied to wait out Saban's retirement, it doesn't seem likely that the staff will fall behind the times.
Talent Atrophy: Mack Brown
Texas famously doesn't recruit; it selects. The problem with that is that in recent years, Brown's selections haven't turned out all that great. He famously thought that Robert Griffin III and Johnny Manziel would be good safeties, but the whole roster pales in comparison to his 2005 title team. Colt McCoy covered up a lot of problems on offense, but when he graduated after 2009, there was a yawning chasm left behind. No one would accuse any Longhorns of being poor athletes, to be sure, but not enough of them are excellent football players.
To date, this too doesn't seem like a big problem for the Tide. No one out-recruits Saban's Alabama in aggregate based on recruiting stars. Even beyond that, he and his staff have been great at developing talent. Players that came in as a three-star recruits according to Rivals that would go on to be standouts for the team include (but aren't limited to) Greg McElroy, Marquis Maze, Josh Chapman, Terrence Cody, Marcell Dareus, and Chance Warmack. All it takes is one bad recruiting class to bring a title team back down from the clouds, but Saban hasn't had one of those in a while.
Retirement: Tom Osborne
The longtime Huskers coach was the last guy to win three national titles in four years, albeit with one of them shared. He decided to hang up his whistle after the last of the three. Frank Solich wasn't bad in replacing him, but he couldn't live up to the insanely high standards. He was fired and replaced by Bill Callahan, and Nebraska promptly wandered into the football wilderness.
Saban is 61-years-old, but he doesn't look his age. He's definitely got plenty of good years left in him, and I do believe him when he said he's done job hopping. He can't coach forever, though, and it's a football cliche that you never want to be the guy who follows the legend because those guys don't do so well. Bear Bryant gave way to Ray Perkins. Darrell Royal gave way to Fred Akers. Bo and Woody gave way to Earle Bruce and Gary Moeller. Steve Spurrier gave way to Ron Zook.
The tumultuous time that preceded Saban's arrival shows that Alabama isn't immune to hiring poor fits and mediocre coaches. While Saban appears to be grooming Smart to be his replacement, trusted lieutenants have a mixed record in following mentors. Besides, Saban's current run is so special because almost no one has done it before. Three coaches in the postwar era have won three national titles in four seasons: Frank Leahy, Osborne, and Saban. Notre Dame went through three underwhelming head coaches before finding another good one after Leahy, and Nebraska has gone through at least two post-Osborne (depending on what you think of Bo Pelini).
Alabama is one of the truly special college football programs. Its history, prestige, and wealth give it advantages most other programs can only dream about, and it sits in the middle of a talent-rich corridor stretching from Texas to Florida. For all the stinkers they had in between the Bryant, Gene Stallings, and Saban eras, every one of those questionable hires won at least 10 games once. Coaches who aren't on Saban's otherworldly level (like Stallings) can still win a national title there, and some decidedly below it (Harold Drew, Bill Curry and Mike DuBose) still won or shared the SEC title. Bama will never be down for long, but going down to any degree is about all it will take to end the dynasty. Other league coaches like Les Miles, Richt, Kevin Sumlin, and Will Muschamp could take advantage of any drop and knock the Tide off of its pedestal.
Saban's retirement looks like the surest bet to end the run among the factors listed here, but it's very difficult to see the ends of runs coming. Texas was the consensus preseason No. 6 and Florida was No. 4 in 2010, for example. It's possible he has a few more national titles left in him, but it's also possible the seeds for decline have already been sown. He keeps things on such a tight lockdown that we can't poke around and try to find evidence one way or the other.
Bama will continue to dominate, and then one day it won't. One of the causes listed above will probably be the reason. Good luck figuring out which one it will be and when it will bring things down.