ATLANTA—The machine rolled on Saturday. For the fourth time in seven seasons, Alabama players partied on the turf of the Georgia Dome as confetti fell on the first Saturday in December.
The machine will roll on Sunday. Unless the College Football Playoff selection committee has a drastic change of heart, Alabama will head to the postseason with a shot at a national title for the fourth time in five years and the fifth time in seven. This century, only Pete Carroll’s USC program has come close to this kind of consistency, but even Carroll’s Trojans couldn’t keep rolling for as long as the Crimson Tide have.
Alabama has lost coordinators, and it’s about to lose another one. At some point, someone other than coach Nick Saban’s ever-present press conference Coke bottle will admit defensive coordinator Kirby Smart is taking over the program at his alma mater Georgia. Smart has been a fixture during this run, but the Tide have shuffled through three offensive coordinators with little to no drop-off. The names have changed. The results have not. Mark Ingram begat Trent Richardson who begat T.J. Yeldon who begat Derrick Henry. Rolando McClain begat Dont’a Hightower who begat C.J. Mosley who begat Reggie Ragland.
But even for the people inside the machine, this year felt different. The rest of the SEC West had gradually closed the talent gap with Alabama, because unless someone changes the rules, the Tide can still only play 11 people at a time. A program can only stack so many five-star recruits before some of the best athletes in the nation choose to go elsewhere to play right away. This was bound to happen by virtue of math and human nature. The difference is that most programs, even the best ones, can’t weather this. They dip, if only for a year. Alabama hasn’t dipped, though even Saban wondered if this team could match its predecessors’ championship standards after a 43–37 home loss to Ole Miss on Sept. 19.
“I don't think anybody really thought after the Ole Miss game this team would wind up here,” Saban said after Saturday’s 29–15 win over Florida that clinched the SEC title and improved Alabama’s record to 12–1. “To be honest with you, I had some questions in my mind as to whether we'd wind up here.”
They were legitimate questions. Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin hadn’t settled on a quarterback until, in the midst of the Ole Miss game, they realized they had erred in starting sophomore Cooper Bateman over senior Jake Coker, who started the first two games. Alabama committed five turnovers against the Rebels. Meanwhile, Ole Miss was able to match the Tide athletically at times. If the Rebels could do that, what about teams that traditionally recruited better than Ole Miss?
But the Tide grew from that loss. On Saturday, as Alabama players dissected the run to the SEC title, many of them used the phrase “after the Ole Miss game.” It provided a line of demarcation for their season. Saban has said he doesn’t understand why it usually takes a negative situation to encourage a team to grow, but it does. And that loss helped this team grow into one of Saban’s favorites. “We haven't had issues,” he said. “We haven't had lots of problems. I don't have to call guys in at all. Everybody sort of bought in. Really a fun team to coach. Sometimes you have really good teams that have talent, but with that talent comes some issues. This team doesn't have a lot of issues.”
Perhaps this is because these players understand what Saban wants from them. Their leaders are players like Henry (44 carries for 189 yards with a touchdown against the Gators), who may win the Heisman Trophy in less than a week but who still chooses not to talk about it, and Ragland, who could have been an early-round NFL draft pick this past May but felt like he had more to learn in Tuscaloosa. “Not everybody can play for coach Saban,” Ragland said. “He puts pressure on us. Life is not going to take it easy on us, so he’s not going to take it easy on us.”
But perhaps Saban’s appreciation for this team—and his pointing out of the lack off issues that sometimes accompany talent—is because it may have overachieved. This might be Alabama’s best defense since 2011, but the offense isn’t as dynamic as most of the offenses during this run. It relies heavily on Henry and the offensive line to churn out yards and milk the clock. In the playoff, that may not be enough. Coker and receivers Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart may have to make the Tide more explosive. An Oklahoma or a Clemson can find a way to score on Alabama’s defense, and the Tide may find themselves trying to match the pace instead of smothering and draining the clock as they did against Florida.
But Alabama has more than three weeks to address its issues. Will the Tide win their fourth national title of the Saban era? That’s impossible to say. We can make a plausible case for any of the four teams expected to make the playoff to hold the trophy at the end. But Alabama is in the mix. The fact that the Tide keep playing themselves into this spot so often is the most remarkable part.