ELEVENTH IN A SERIES :: The 2008 Alabama Review
There were a few people who saw upside surprise in Alabama's 2008 season before it started. Nick Saban, along with many of the game's other top coaches right now, had a history of having a pop in his second year at a school. Plus, the team's composition appeared to be perfect for how Saban likes to have his teams, even if the players involved had yet to accomplish a whole lot.
I would guess it's unlikely though that even the most optimistic Bama fans would have predicted a 12-0 regular season, except for the steadfast loons who believe the Tide will go undefeated every year. It had all the makings of a classic Alabama team: a tough, run first offense with an adequate quarterback and a nasty defense. It was enough to have some looking back to 1992.
It appeared as though things were all going according to
plan the Process, that is until a dramatic fourth quarter collapse against Florida in the SEC Championship Game. The Gators outscored the Tide 14-0 and out gained it 140 yards to 1. Then in the Sugar Bowl, Alabama sleepwalked its way into a 21-0 hole in the first quarter against Utah. Two quarters, two opponents, five touchdowns allowed. Needless to say, that's not how anyone wants to end a season.
So Saban has two years at Alamaba under his belt now, and in the second he won 12 games. Given the program's recent history, that's great. In the entire history of the Bama football though, how much is it really worth? Every head coach who has roamed the sidelines in Tuscaloosa since Bear Bryant has won 10 or more games. They all hit that mark: the NFL import, the deserter, the champion, the idiot, the Hedley Lamarr clone, the famous son, and now, the Process. Don't get me wrong, I don't believe that the vast majority of Alabama fans consider last season to be anything but a resounding success. It just means long term, Saban will need to do more.
Head coaches at Alabama are ultimately judged on championships, and with what looks like an even nastier defense than last year's, Saban will be in position to contend for another. Teams that have to replace household names are always scrutinized more closely, and at least within the SEC, everyone knew the names of the now-departed John Parker Wilson, Glen Coffee, and Andre Smith. That has caused many people to doubt Bama's chances based on a perceived offensive deficiency, but this team was never going to lean on that offense for salvation anyway.
The question I have is whether Alabama's near-inevitable swoon year will be this year or next. The majority of teams that have a new coach who comes in and immediately experiences success see a relative down year in either the third or fourth season. It's a natural gap that forms between the previous coaches' best players and the new coaches' good recruiting classes. Urban Meyer won a national title in his second year at Florida but won just nine games the next. Jim Tressel won a national title in his second year at Ohio State and eleven games in his third, but OSU won just eight games in his fourth. Les Miles won a national title in his third at LSU but won only eight games in his fourth too. Saban himself at LSU won a conference title his second year but won only eight games the next.
I would be inclined to pick this year as the down year if it wasn't for how good the defense should be. In fact, if that defensive strength might help Alabama avoid the swoon year entirely as second-year wonders Bob Stoops and Pete Carroll did. A lot hinges on new quarterback Greg McElroy not making mistakes (hint: when in doubt, throw it to Julio) and someone from the stable of running backs emerging whether a vet, like Mark Ingram, or a newcomer, like Trent Richardson. If that can happen and the line can gel, then the 2009 Crimson Tide could be roughly indistinguishable from the 2008 rendition.
I am a bit torn on this team though. I could see it bulldozing its way to another 12-0 regular season with lots of defense, running, grit, and angry pointing by the head coach. I could also just as easily see some of last year's swing games swinging the other way en route to a nine win season or so.
As the head man himself would say, the process is more important than the results. Regardless of whether Alabama gets hit with the swoon year or not, it's safe to say a winning process has been implemented for the long term for the first time in Tuscaloosa since the Gene Stallings era. Now, it's time for something special. It's not just that no coach has ever won a national title at two different schools.
It's just that it takes one to stand out from the crowd at Alabama.