Alabama favorite to win third straight title, but don't count on it
Nick Saban spent his offseason refuting reports that he is the devil. This seems like a fairly serious charge until you remember that we are talking about college football, and being called the devil is a compliment. Nobody ever called Ron Zook the devil, except perhaps his own fans.
Besides, Saban is the devil if we decide he is the devil, and this has nothing to do with ethics or morals or the fact that Saban has not smiled since 1982. College football needs devils, though it clearly does not need Duke Blue Devils, and Saban is the devil we know and don't love. He is chasing his fourth national championship in five years, and fifth overall. Whether he drinks human blood for fun is an irrelevant (though fascinating) question.
The story of this college football season is Saban and Alabama vs. The World, and The World is a two-touchdown underdog. Alabama received 58 out of 60 first-place votes in the Associated Press media poll, and 58 out of 62 first-place votes in the USA Today people-who-vote-on-behalf-of-the-coaches' poll. That is not unanimous, but it's close, and for good reason: Alabama has a veteran quarterback, an incredibly talented roster, an all-time great coach running the show, and a favorable schedule.
And yet ... I'll take The World, and I don't even need those two touchdowns.
There are a few football reasons for this, and some of them may even make sense.
Alabama lost the strength of its team last year when linemen Chance Warmack, D.J. Fluker and Barrett Jones left. The best lineman on the team, future Pro Bowler Cyrus Kouandjio, is still around, and Saban has recruited quite well the last few years, so that offensive line will still be very good. But it almost certainly will not be as great as it was last year.
And if that line was merely very good last year, Alabama would not have won the national championship. We tend to remember the last thing we saw, and with Alabama, the last thing we saw was the Crimson Tide making Notre Dame and Manti Te'o vanish, almost like they didn't exist or something. The final score of that national championship game was 42-14 and it wasn't anywhere near that close.
It was easy to walk away from that game and think Alabama was miles ahead of the rest of college football. But that's not really true. Alabama lost to Texas A&M at home, in what seemed like Johnny Manziel's signature performance. The Crimson Tide also needed a late comeback to win at LSU, and was one play away from losing the SEC title game to Georgia.
During its run to the 2011 title, Alabama lost to LSU 9-6 at home, and needed some breaks to get a national title game rematch against the Tigers.
This is how college football works, and how it has worked for a century or so. The story of a college football season is so different from the story of an NFL season. In the NFL, we don't worry too much about the best team at the beginning of the year, because we know somebody will win it on the field at the end. In college, we anoint a team at the beginning of the year and wonder if that team will be the last one standing.
Alabama's biggest opponent is not LSU, Texas A&M or whoever it faces in the SEC title game. No, its biggest opponent is the breaks of the game. Next year, when college football goes to a four-team playoff, the sport will look a bit more like the NFL. If a team suffers its first loss of the season in November, as Alabama did last year, that team can still expect to make the postseason. (Alabama never fell out of the top four in the rankings last year.)
This has always been part of the joy of college football, and you really don't see it in any other sport. I am in the ever-shrinking minority on this, but I preferred college football without a playoff system. The Bowl Championship Series claims to be something it was not -- a way of determining a true national champion -- but before the BCS, college football had a pure bowl system, and I loved it. There was championship tension from the opening kickoff. Scheduling quirks and bizarre plays often played a huge role in the season.
It was different. It was fun. But that was a long time ago, and these days, we take this whole national championship thing so damn seriously. We don't seem to want different or fun.
Next year, we will get a playoff. In the meantime, the best team in the country will need to be both great and lucky. I envision big wins for Alabama in the first two weeks, over Virginia Tech and Texas A&M, spawning a thousand stories asking if anybody can stop Alabama -- each story more hyperbolic than the last.
And then, as autumn settles in, Alabama will fight the same battle that has defined the sport forever. It's a battle that will inevitably include magic and good fortune and unexplainable events in an era when we try to quantify everything. When the playoff arrives, college football will lose a little more of its innocence -- and as we know, the sport only has a few teaspoons of innocence left. Saban and his all-business model may win another national championship. But a century of college football says not to count on it.