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After a decade of dominance, 2018 really might be Nick Saban’s best team ever

Lord help us all.

NCAA Football: Alabama at Louisiana State John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

College football is a temporary sport. Players are around for just three to five years. Successful coaches pay for their success by hiring new assistants after their best ones get hired away.

Some of the most revered coaches in the sport’s history enjoyed only the briefest of stays at the top. That Nebraska’s Tom Osborne had nine top-five finishes in 25 seasons was remarkable. Michigan’s Bo Schembechler had just six in 21 years. Georgia’s Vince Dooley had only four in 25 years, and three came within a four-year span.

Your dominance atop such a cyclical game is probably going to be brief; if you pull off two such cycles, you’re a legend.

For Nick Saban at Alabama, a down “cycle” is a down month. Never mind top-five finishes — Saban’s Crimson Tide have pulled off five top-one finishes in the last nine years.

Barring a sudden collapse, Bama will enjoy its 11th consecutive top-10 finish in 2018. The program hasn’t lost more than two games in a season since 2010 and has been No. 1 at least briefly in each of the last 11 years.

Odds are very much in favor of a fifth straight College Football Playoff appearance; in fact, the next CFP without Saban’s Tide will be the first. Only Florida State’s Bobby Bowden had a product this consistently elite, and including a national title at LSU, Saban has already tripled Bowden’s title total.

When we enter mid-November with a Saban team atop the polls, college football can feel almost inevitable. And it probably is. That said, we’re still watching something special: in his 11th year of dominance, Saban might be fielding his best product yet.

Our eyeballs have hinted at that so far. This is easily Saban’s most productive offense yet, and while the defense hasn’t been as consistently dominant, it has risen to the occasion.

The two best offenses Alabama has faced — per S&P+, that’s Ole Miss (No. 4 in Off. S&P+) and Missouri (No. 18) — scored a combined 17 points and averaged 3.8 yards per play. Plus, in the biggest game of the season to date, Bama shut out LSU in Baton Rouge. Again.

Sure, there have been some leaks against overwhelmed opponents, particularly in garbage time. Arkansas State gained nearly 400 yards (while allowing nearly 600). Arkansas gained 405 yards and scored 31 (while allowing 639 and 65, respectively). Tennessee scored 21 points somehow.

When asked to raise its game, though, Bama’s defense has looked like we expect. And younger players like redshirt sophomore lineman Quinnen Williams, sophomore linebacker Dylan Moses, and freshman cornerback Patrick Surtain Jr. are starting to dominate.

The stats agree with the eyeballs, too. This really is close to being Saban’s best team yet.

Nick Saban’s Bama dominance

Team S&P+ Rating S&P+ Pctile Rank Off. S&P+ Off Rank Def. S&P+ Def Rank
Team S&P+ Rating S&P+ Pctile Rank Off. S&P+ Off Rank Def. S&P+ Def Rank
2008 Alabama 19.8 95.7% 7 32.3 25 12.5 3
2009 Alabama 24.0 98.6% 2 34.1 14 10.1 2
2010 Alabama 22.9 97.3% 4 41.4 2 18.5 14
2011 Alabama 27.5 99.2% 2 34.4 20 6.9 1
2012 Alabama 28.5 99.4% 1 40.4 7 11.9 3
2013 Alabama 22.2 96.6% 2 39.5 9 17.3 6
2014 Alabama 28.3 98.8% 2 43.1 5 14.8 3
2015 Alabama 30.0 99.1% 1 37.9 24 7.9 1
2016 Alabama 34.0 99.8% 1 40.4 5 6.7 1
2017 Alabama 20.0 98.8% 2 33.6 23 13.8 1
2018 Alabama 31.4 99.5% 1 48.3 2 16.6 11

By design, only one or two teams per year will hit the 99th percentile in S&P+. If the current team holds its course, this will be the fifth Alabama team to do it in the last eight years. More notably, only one team has played at a higher level than this one.

This has been, on paper, Saban’s worst defense since 2010. That’s a mind-blowing thing to say about a team that just went on the road to shut out a top-10 team, but that’s where the bar is set.

Using S&P+’s adjusted scoring averages, the Tide are allowing about 5.5 more adjusted points per game than they averaged between 2011-17. They’re countering that by scoring more than 10 additional points per game.

Their 2010 offense, powered by receiver Julio Jones and the running back trio of Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, and Eddie Lacy, was Saban’s highest-ranked offense of the period, placing second in Off. S&P+ in 2010. This year’s unit matches that No. 2 ranking, but only because of Oklahoma’s continued otherworldly run. This is, to date, the best Alabama offense since 1945, according to S&P+.

The scariest part is that so many weapons at coordinator Mike Locksley’s and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s disposal have barely been used. Because of the dominance of the passing game, Bama hadn’t really been forced to lean on the run in key moments. (That’s right: the first step toward slowing down Alabama, the team with two Heisman-winning running backs in the last decade, is to make them run the ball.)

On Saturday against LSU, though, with Tagovailoa posting stats that were merely mortal, Alabama indeed looked to the ground. Guess what: it worked incredibly well. Bama posted a 63 percent rushing success rate, and backs Damien Harris and Najee Harris combined for 25 carries and 190 yards. Hell, to add insult to injury, Tagovailoa rushed for a 44-yard score as well.

The Tide destroyed their best opponent with plan B. Goodness.

The one Bama team ahead of 2018’s in S&P+ is an interesting one. Statistically, the best Saban team was the 2016 squad that didn’t win the national title.

For most of the year, the 2016 squad played at a level unseen since that 1945 Army team. Its dominance faded late, though, at least offensively.

Freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts won the SEC’s offensive player of the year award, but his passer rating slipped, from 147.1 through 12 games to 129.5 in the SEC title game against Florida to 86.9 in two CFP games. In the national title game, Alabama’s offensive struggles allowed Clemson to control the ball and wear down the Tide defense. Bama still came within one second of the national title.

If you’re searching for signs of vulnerability, then, just remember this: almost every team, no matter how great, usually loses at least once.

Hell, Saban’s only unbeaten Bama team to date was the 2009 version that doesn’t really stack up with many of the teams since. Teams lose, and Alabama is running out of time to lose a game less consequential than a CFP game.

So there you go, increasingly hopeless college football fans. There’s your reason to remained tuned in. Either you’re watching the best version yet of a Bama national championship team, or you’re watching an amazing team that could still lose a game.