Dynasties end. This much, we know. Most end right around the time we begin to ask, "Are we seeing the makings of a dynasty at _____?" Limitations of one kind or another tend to get in the way: a coach's physical limitations (ask Urban Meyer about the toll 25-hour work days take on the body), a coach's ability to avoid the temptation of another job (often with the letters "NFL" involved), an 18-year-old's inability to say no to a booster (and his inability to keep people from finding out about it), a 21-year-old's inability to avoid occasional idiocy and trouble-making, a group of 18-year-olds' collective ability to replicate the quality of the previous group, et cetera.
Occasionally, though, the fun can indeed last a while. Southern Cal finished in the top four of the AP poll seven years in a row from 2002 through 2008 (though they technically didn't in 2004, I guess). Florida State famously finished in the top five every year from 1987 through 2000. Miami won four national titles from 1983 through 1991, including a three-in-five stretch. But in modern college football, it is incredibly difficult to maintain a truly elite level every single year.
Of course, Nick Saban doesn't really have any interest in hearing that. After treading water in his first season in Tuscaloosa (7-6 in 2007, 40th in F/+), his Alabama program has been magnificent. The Tide have gone 44-4 in the regular season since 2008 (35-1 in 2008, 2009 and 2011), have won two national titles, and have ranked seventh, first, third and first in the year-end F/+ rankings. They are first in five-year performance (even including that No. 40 finish in 2007), and they are first in two-year recruiting. Including LSU in 2003, Saban has won three national titles in his last seven seasons at the college level. He knows how to build a devastatingly well-oiled machine, and he knows how to keep it moving forward. His offense ranked fifth in Off. F/+ in 2010, then lost its starting quarterback, All-American wide receiver and Heisman-winning running back, and ranked seventh in 2011. His defense ranked first in Def. F/+ in both 2009 and 2011. They lose studs, replace them with different studs, and continue to win at a high level.
Alabama did, of course, take a step backward in 2010 after losing quite a few of its title-winning 2009 stars. The Tide were still fantastic overall -- third in F/+ -- but some brief glitches cost them dramatically. And in 2012, Saban must replace his Heisman-finalist (and top-five draft pick) running back, the top three members of his receiving corps, an All-SEC center, two incredible linebackers, two stout cornerbacks and a star safety, not to mention his offensive coordinator. It would be reasonable to assume that the Tide might once again take a step backward in 2012.
But here's the deal: Everybody else is flawed, too. LSU is relying on a new quarterback to cure all ills and make up for some serious losses in the secondary. USC is hoping that duct tape and chicken wire will keep its defensive line together. Oregon is starting a redshirt freshman at quarterback. Oklahoma has an almost completely new receiving corps. Everybody has issues.
Some incredible teams will emerge as the season unfolds -- we obviously didn't know Auburn was going to be great in 2010, and while we figured LSU would be excellent in 2011, we didn't necessarily know how excellent. But even with new players in huge roles, Alabama has as good a chance as anybody of becoming the team that defines the season's narrative. No matter how boring it may be to play the hot hand, it is a hot hand for a reason.
Whether we enjoy the style of play or not, Sabanball is devastatingly effective and should remain so in 2012. The main question is simply whether the Tide will again suffer some ever-so-brief lapses, or whether they will skate through another interesting schedule either unscathed or only slightly scathed.
Did they take a step backwards in 2010? Of course. This past fall, they fielded only the 13th-best team of the last six seasons; their 2009 team was third-best. But they did lose three times -- at home to F/+ No. 1 Auburn and on the road against No. 11 South Carolina and No. 13 LSU.
Just about any team would have lost at least three times against the schedule Alabama faced ... but they did, in fact, lose. Three times. Therefore something must have been wrong, right? It's hard for some to get past that, and it's perhaps especially hard for 'Bama fans who a) have seen their team win bigger than any other program in this win-based sport, and b) had to watch their bitter rivals walking off with the national title. For them, 2010 was a frustrating experience. But with the bones of this program built as sturdy as any in the country, this type of "frustration" is both unlikely to continue and yearned for by most of the country. […]
Let's see ... top five in four-year F/+ ... check. Ridiculous recruiting ... check. A seemingly sustainable turnover margin (unless the winner of the quarterbacks derby does a nice Jarrett Lee impersonation) that wasn't bolstered by a ton of lucky bounces on fumbles ... check. A healthy number of overall starters returning ... check. Is it any wonder that Alabama is the No. 1 team according to the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 projections? […]
[T]he schedule, of course, is a doozy; but the vast majority of our projection factors point to good things in 2011. This despite losing a Heisman winner, an All-American receiver, a stud defensive end, and a quarterback who lost three starts in his combined high school and college career. These losses are just part of the "college cycle," of course, when you recruit like Nick Saban does. Hug your All-Americans on the way out of the door, and welcome the new set.
That defense. Oh, that defense. The national average for scoring in a given year is somewhere around 27 points. Alabama allowed more than 14 points just once all season, and that was in a sleepwalking session versus Georgia Southern. Even using the Adj. Points metric, which factors in the strength of an opponent, Alabama only "allowed" more than 23.4 Adj. Points once (again, versus GSU). When you have a defense this good, you don't need much from your offense.
That the Tide offense was actually outstanding, too, is why last year's 'Bama team was the second best of the last seven seasons. The offense was a bit inefficient on passing downs and was, for some reason, merely decent in the second quarter, but that is picking nits. Even in their 9-6 loss to LSU, the Tide averaged nearly five yards per play against a defense that didn't allow that level very often.
And while the Tide's offensive proficiency faded as the season progressed, this was still a devastatingly consistent team:
First Four Games: Alabama 36.1 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 14.8 (plus-21.3)
Next Four Games: Alabama 35.1 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 16.8 (plus-18.3)
Last Five Games: Alabama 32.5 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 15.5 (plus-17.0)
Alabama briefly ceded "best in the country" status to LSU in November following their home loss to the Bayou Bengals. But given a second chance, Alabama dominated. People outside of the state may not have wanted to see a rematch, but nobody could argue that the Tide didn't make the most of the opportunity.
This was, by decimal points, the second best team in the "F/+ era" (2005 through 2011). If regression occurs in 2012, do we really expect it to be stark enough to knock them from the nation's elite? I didn't think so.
Here's the thing about both Alabama and LSU in 2011: their offenses were, as a whole, tremendous. They played at a snail-slow pace -- if LSU had averaged 75 plays per game instead of 62.1, they'd have averaged around 430 yards per game, a top-30 total; if Alabama had averaged 75 plays, they'd have generated about 485 per game, a top-10 total -- and they rarely had to take any risks because their defenses were so good (and in LSU's case, the Tigers had one of the best special teams units ever), but on a per-play and per-drive basis, both were top-notch. Considering the blue-chip talent each had on that side of the ball, this makes sense, but it flies in the face of the general "all defense, no offense" meme that dominated most of last season.
In two games against an Alabama defense that allowed barely eight points per game, LSU indeed scored only nine points; against everybody else, LSU scored 40.9 points per game. In two games against an LSU defense that allowed barely 11 points per game, Alabama indeed only scored 27 points; against everybody else, Alabama scored 38.7 points per game. And that was at one of the slowest paces in the country. LSU and Alabama played defense better than any other team did anything in 2011, but both teams, particularly Alabama, were also quite stout on the offensive side of the ball.
Of course, that was with offensive coordinator Jim McElwain pulling the strings. McElwain is now Colorado State's head coach and has been replaced by former Washington offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. Nussmeier was big on balance at UW (the Huskies ran and passed almost precisely as much as the national averages on standard and passing downs), and that should fit the general, pro-style approach Saban tends to want. That Washington also executed at a terribly slow pace makes him an even better fit. And if Nussmeier can fix what has been a couple of years of iffy, conservative play in the red zone, that's all the better. (Well, he can fix the "iffy" part. The "conservative" part is by design.)
Nussmeier inherits a unit that is at once proven and rather green. A.J. McCarron was wonderfully efficient in the pocket last year despite not having a dominant No. 1 target (Marquis Maze averaged just 7.2 yards per target). He completed 67 percent of his passes and averaged a strong 7.5 yards per pass attempt (including sacks) with just a 3.2 percent sack rate and a 1.5 percent interception rate. He spread the love around quite a bit last year -- eight players caught between 11 and 31 passes -- and that should help absorb the loss of top receivers Maze and Darius Hanks, as well as tight end Brad Smelley. In juniors Kenny Bell and Kevin Norwood, he has two players with huge potential; the two combined to catch 33 of 44 balls (75 percent catch rate) for 549 yards (an explosive 12.5 yards per target). Norwood was a secret weapon in the BCS title game (six targets, four catches, 78 yards).
Bell and Norwood are joined by plenty of other intriguing options in the passing game. There's sophomore and former blue-chipper (though that's almost redundant with this group) DeAndrew White (145 yards, 6.3 per target, 61 percent catch rate). There's sophomore Christion Jones, who has come on strong of late. There are four-star redshirt freshmen Marvin Shinn and Danny Woodson Jr., and there are three potentially fantastic freshmen, including physically impressive five-star signee Eddie Williams. I am a little concerned about the tight end position -- Smelley (395 yards, 7.7 per target, 80 percent catch rate) was such a safe, automatic weapon for McCarron last year, and he is gone. But between senior Michael Williams (201 yards, 7.2 per target, 64 percent catch rate) and a pair of interesting sophomores, Brian Vogler and Harrison Jones, odds are at least decent that another reliable pair of hands will emerge.
Of course, this is Alabama, so that's probably enough talk about the passing game. The Tide will run the ball until you prove you can stop it. In 2011, the Tide lost Heisman-winning running back Mark Ingram and, on the sturdy legs of Trent Richardson (1,775 rushing yards, plus-42.6 Adj. POE, meaning he was about 43 points better than the average back in 2011), ranked third in Rushing S&P+ for the second straight year. But with Richardson now a member of the Cleveland Browns, there are a few more question marks in the running backs corps this time around.
Not that there aren't plenty of candidates, of course. Eddie Lacy (2010-11: 1,121 yards, 6.9 per carry, plus-25.5 Adj. POE) has been a spectacular backup for two years now. Big 242-pound junior Jalston Fowler could carve out a nice short-yardage role (though he showed big-play ability in 2011, too). Five-star redshirt freshman Dee Hart is smaller and shiftier than the average Alabama back and could immediately find a role as a third-down back. Five-star freshman T.J. Yeldon looks like the every-down back of the future and, for all we know, the present. There might not be a Richardson here, but Alabama might not need one, even if Lacy is potentially a bit gimpy from a recent ankle sprain.
Richardson was fantastic in 2011, but his blocking was good, too. Alabama's line ranked seventh in Adj. Line Yards and returns four players with starting experience (a healthy 97 career starts); Outland Award-winning tackle Barrett Jones moves to center to replace William Vlachos, but fear not for the tackle position. In junior D.J. Fluker and sophomore Cyrus Kouandjio, 'Bama has two former five-star signees ready to roll. In all, Alabama hasn't recruited to quite the same level up front as elsewhere (of the 13 players listed on their statistical profile, "only" five received a four-star rating or higher), but that didn't really slow them down last year, did it?
In 2010, Alabama was tasked with replacing nine starters from the best defense in the country. It fell all the way to … 15th in Def. F/+ the next year. The unit's youth bit it at random times -- for a quarter or two against South Carolina, for two quarters against Auburn, for a few plays against LSU -- but overall, the Tide were still rock-solid defensively, and in 2011, the defense once again paved the way for America's most exciting snuff film.
Comparatively speaking, this year's rebuilding project isn't as stark. The Tide must replace two star linebackers (Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw combined for a ridiculous 28 tackles for loss, 12.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and five passes defensed), free safety Mark Barron (five tackles for loss, two interceptions, five passes broken up) and two wonderful corners (DeQuan Menzie and Dre Kirkpatrick combined for eight tackles for loss, one pick and 20 passes broken up).
To be sure, that's a lot of lost production. But ...
- ... the line returns mostly intact. Senior ends Damion Square and Quinton Dial and junior Ed Stinson (combined: 15 tackles for loss) are all back and are, of course, backed up by four-star youngsters. At tackle, strongman Jesse Williams was basically a co-starter with the since-departed Nick Gentry and Josh Chapman. The unit is a bit thinner in terms of experience, but that's the only time "thin" and "Jesse Williams" will be used in the same sentence.
- ... the linebacking corps still features proven entities. Weakside linebackers Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley combined for 11 tackles for loss (along with two picks and five passes broken up) of their own last year and will provide solid experience for a unit that includes sophomore Trey Depriest, sophomore Adrian Hubbard (three sacks in the spring game), and a potential late bloomer in junior Tana Patrick. This is the most likely unit to suffer a drop-off in 2012, but the ceiling is still quite high.
- ... Dee Milliner was basically a third starting cornerback. Milliner picked off three passes and broke up nine more last year and almost counts as a returning starter himself (indeed, he started for much of 2010). Losing Menzie and Kirkpatrick hurts, but really, only one relative newcomer needs to emerge, be it junior college transfer Deion Belue, junior John Fulton or even a freshman like five-star newcomer Landon Collins.
- ... Robert Lester and Vinnie Sunseri return. Losing Barron hurts, but strong safety Lester (two interceptions, three passes broken up, 1.5 tackles for loss) was rock solid, Sunseri was a steady, reliable backup last year, and five-star sophomore Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix could be ready for a star turn.
Will the Alabama defense be as good as it was last year, when it was better than LSU's and head-and-shoulders better than everybody else's? Probably not. Will it regress enough for too many other defenses to surpass it? Probably not. I still see this as a top-five unit. The question is simply whether any breakdowns that the Tide suffer will cost them in a tight game or take place in a game the offense has already salted away.
This is Alabama. Success is winning a national title. No need to overthink this one.
Fans of exciting, spread-'em-out, offense-heavy football have been going through the five stages of grief when it comes to the rise of Sabanball. Over the last year, many have been transitioning between Stage 3 (Bargaining) and Stage 4 (Depression -- "Why bother?"), but at some point Stage 5 (Acceptance) will set in. Nick Saban has not invented a new way to play football; he just recruits better players than everybody else can and coaches them better than anybody else could.
Alabama isn't going to win the national title every year, and they certainly have just enough potential holes to bite them. If they are occasionally vulnerable to vertical passing attacks like they were in 2010, then trips to Arkansas and/or Missouri could be problematic. If youth is most evident early in the year, then the Week 1 meeting with Michigan in Dallas could present problems. And, of course, the trip to Baton Rouge on Nov. 3 looms large even now.
But Saban is going to continue crafting a remarkable product, even if he isn't worried too much about aesthetics. Be it 10 or 13, his Tide will win a lot of games this year, then sign another top recruiting class, then win a lot more games next year.
Eventually, this potential dynasty will fold. They always do. But "eventually" probably won't come around in 2012.
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