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SEC 2015: Alabama Is What You Want to See

How you perceive Alabama in 2015 says as much about you as it does the team.

Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

If you wanted to try to write a narrative about now being the beginning of the end of the Nick Saban era at Alabama, you'd start with something from the recent New York Times article about Nick Saban and Texas:

They say that Sexton told them that Saban felt "special pressure" and a lack of appreciation at Alabama. "Sexton said that the day after the championship, Alabama boosters were pounding the table, talking about a three-peat," Hall says.

Sexton also told the men that Saban felt as if he was more of a turnaround artist than a long-term C.E.O., and that it was easier and more fun to rebuild a program than it was to keep one at the top.

It sounds like fellow SEC legend Steve Spurrier's complaints about Florida fans desiring perfection in his waning days in Gainesville, mixed with his rationale for why coaching at South Carolina energized him in a way that being at UF no longer did by the end. Spurrier may have won five SEC titles and a national championship in his first six years at Florida, but he won just one conference crown in his final six.

Relatedly, you might note that since Spurrier won the national title in his seventh season at UF in 1996, only Tom Osborne's half title in 1997 and Bobby Bowden's 1999 title have come to coaches beyond their eighth season at their jobs. Only Mack Brown in 2005, his eighth season, won one after his sixth year at a program. Saban is entering his ninth at Alabama, a place where fans get antsy if the team isn't bringing home national titles with some regularity.

You could also note that Saban has had to offer explanations (excuses, if you're less charitable) for bowl losses two years in a row now. Saying his team didn't want to be there was more digestible for his Sugar Bowl flop against Utah when A) he had a team that didn't yet know how to handle prosperity, and B) Bama won every game the next season. When he's talking about a team not being that into a bowl loss to Oklahoma and following it up with NFL Draft visions impairing certain players' edges against Ohio State, it sounds like he's losing his ability to keep his teams properly motivated.

You could even note that his defense seem to be slipping by some measures. After allowing just one team to score in the 30s across 2009-12 and none to score above 38 from 2007 and on, three opponents have scored over 40 offensive points against his team across the past two seasons. After allowing just seven teams to gain over 5.5 yards per play across 2008-12, seven have done it in 2013-14 alone.

And all of this would be coming after a year in which, according to one of the best metrics we have, Saban coached up merely the second best team of the season and tenth best of the last decade. And two of those teams it placed behind were his own 2009 and 2012 squads.

It's hard to overstate just how high Saban has raised the bar at Alabama. Unless you're Osborne and you raise it up this high right at the end of your career, at some point you'll find yourself dueling with the expectations monster. Oh, you were the No. 1 team merely at the end of the regular season? You lost your bowl by an entire touchdown? What's wrong with you? Just go take the Texas job or retire already, you over-the-hill has-been.

Saban's defenses aren't as smothering as they once were, in part, yes, because his secondaries have fallen off some. Part of it is just that we're in an era of offensive renaissance where schemes take advantage of rules that favor offense, such as the one that allows offensive linemen to go upfield up to three yards on screen passes. The fact that officials are so lax on enforcing it that it really ends up more like five yards makes it that much tougher on defenses.

But Saban has dragged himself kicking and screaming into the future all along. Despite famously complaining about hurry up offenses, he had Lane Kiffin speed up his offense over nine plays per game from 63.5 in 2013 to 72.7 in 2014. Remember when the Wildcat was a thing? It ended up a short term fad, but Mark Ingram ran it plenty on the way to his 2009 Heisman Trophy. Saban may cast a wary eye at new things at times, but he's smart enough to know that if something is working, he should adopt it.

It's not like anyone has really found the key to beating Saban other than having a whole bunch of great players. Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans gave him fits, but without them last year, Kevin Sumlin's offense didn't score a point. Hurry-up offenses are supposed to be his kryptonite according to present narratives, but last year was the first time a Gus Malzahn-led offense broke 30 offensive points against him in five tries. Hugh Freeze's 23 in last year's upset are his most in three tries—including a shutout in 2013—and the Rebels used a pair of drives started in Alabama territory to even get to 23.

It's strange to say it, but one of the best coaches in the country has become something of a Rorschach test. With Saban, you're going to see what you want to see. It's true of his 2015 team too. Is it a team that can do fine with a retooled offense thanks to nearly everyone back on defense? Or is a great defense that will be let down by an offense without a quarterback or any proven playmaking receivers?

You, and I, and everyone else will be hanging on the results of the season to answer those questions. Saban? As always, he's more concerned about the process than the results. It's one of those things that make him the best and all of us just observers.