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Saban's coaching is always art, but this year's job is a masterpiece

I took my wife to the world-famous museum on Manhattan's Upper East Side last spring and couldn't wait to show her the collection of the Old Masters. Her less than enthusiastic reaction to the art was similar to her observation last Saturday night as we watched the first half of the Tennessee-Alabama game. "They are going to lose this game," she said, underwhelmed at Alabama's droopy performance. "They look awful.''

The score was 6-6 at halftime, and Alabama looked like it was still being coached by Mike Shula instead of Nick Saban.

"Just wait," I said patiently, having seen this flick seven times previously this season. "There are still two halves in football."

In the second half, Alabama scored 31 unanswered points, didn't allow a first down and took a knee at the end of the game near the Vols' end zone to seal a 37-6 victory over Saban's former assistant, Derek Dooley.

When it comes to being compared to great works of art, Saban's coaching job this season doesn't always appear to be a thing of beauty. But as we all know: Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. In fact, I think Saban's job this season has been a real masterpiece.

Unlike a year ago, when Alabama was the preseason No. 1 team and the heavy favorite to repeat, this team doesn't seem to have any of the suffocating pressure to win it all. There seems a quiet peace, a confidence it will get the job done.

I think one reason Saban has managed this team so well is because it has a chip on its shoulder, thanks in large part to blowing a 24-point lead last year at home to rival Auburn. The Tide haven't looked back. The payback started in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando on the first day of 2011, when Alabama shredded Michigan State 49-7. It was a small consolation to many fans, though, who considered the 10-3 record and No. 10 final ranking a bitter disappointment.

The devastating tornado six months ago, which missed Bryant-Denny Stadium by two blocks, kept the team together and focused on real life issues shortly after spring ball ended. It should be pointed out that the tornado, which destroyed huge chunks of Tuscaloosa and killed 248 people in Alabama, including several University of Alabama students (as well as the girlfriend of the Tide's long-snapper), has served to motivate this team in a way that cannot be underestimated, but may not be fully understood outside of the state.

Alabama's preseason No. 2 ranking was about as under the radar as it gets. When LSU became America's darling after pummeling Oregon on opening weekend, then went on to beat West Virginia, all attention shifted toward the Tigers and to Oklahoma, the preseason No. 1.

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The spotlight on LSU cut the deepest for many reasons, but mostly because the two schools have marked the same territory in the SEC West and because of the obvious Saban connection.

How interesting it will be that the biggest regular season game in modern Alabama history will have Saban putting his newest collection of greatness up against the program which is still benefiting from the meticulous blueprint he put into place 11 years ago in Baton Rouge.

As the hype machine builds for Nov. 5, it's difficult to comprehend how quickly Saban has changed the culture at Alabama. It is easy to forget that in 2007 he took over Shula's moribund program which had gone 26-23 overall and 13-19 in the SEC. Shula was only 2-14 against Alabama's four biggest rivals, Arkansas, Auburn, LSU and Tennessee.

After inheriting a mess, Saban went through the regular season in 2007 with a 6-6 record, including a shocking mid-November home loss to Louisiana-Monroe, 21-14 (it was the third of four straight losses to end the regular season). In the aftermath, Saban said his team, like a nation, must learn from "a catastrophic event."

"Changes in history usually occur after some kind of catastrophic event," Saban said. "It may be 9/11, which sort of changed the spirit of America relative to catastrophic events. Pearl Harbor kind of got us ready for World War II, and that was a catastrophic event."

While some critics howled at Saban's over-the-top statements, the message was received. Starting with the 2007 bowl game in Shreveport, Saban has a 45-5 record, including the perfect regular season in 2008 (Alabama lost to Florida in the SEC title game in a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup), 14-0 record in 2009, 10-3 mark in 2010 and 8-0 mark so far this year.

As we get closer to Nov. 5, the unavoidable pressure and attention will be focused on Saban and his players. While his opponent, Les Miles, has suddenly been embraced by pundits -- to say nothing of late-night comedians -- Saban's success has become passé in the sport.

However, if Saban pulls out this game and leads Alabama to its second BCS title in three years (and his third since 2003) nobody will ever again take this masterpiece for granted.

Not even my wife.