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Nick Saban can’t keep this up forever ... right?

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The dynasty looked vulnerable in January and on Signing Day, but there’s no better 2018 Playoff bet. As usual.

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship Game-Alabama vs Georgia
Nick Saban
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

[The text of this post has been updated to reflect a late injury.]

This preview series takes on a similar order each year: based on the previous year’s S&P+ rankings, I start with the conference with the worst average and work my way to the first, and within each conference we also go worst to first.

The series, then, almost always ends with Alabama.

So every year, the Crimson Tide preview takes on a valedictory feel. It’s more of a “We’re officially ready for the season to start” declaration than a preview — it’s easy to feel like I’m writing the same thing every year. The Tide have finished either first or second in S&P+ in eight of the past nine years, and the one year they failed to clear that bar (2010), they were fourth.

I don’t feel like that this year, though, or at least not as much. Bama might have won its fifth title in nine seasons under Nick Saban, and the Tide might be preseason No. 1 in the AP poll for the third straight season. But the earth shifted under Saban’s feet a bit last year, and I’m fascinated by what happens next.

The smile in the above photo gave it away. In the moments following Bama’s title game win over Georgia, Saban looked like a man who knew he’d gotten away with one. The Tide had trailed Georgia 13-0 at halftime, and Saban had to insert his backup quarterback, freshman Tua Tagovailoa, and take all the risks he tends to avoid.

Bama somehow won, but all I could think about was whether this was the avoidance of a glitch or the beginning of the end.

Since World War II, only one coach has produced the consistently elite, blip-free play that Saban has: Florida State’s Bobby Bowden. His Seminoles didn’t win as many national titles, but they finished fourth or better in the AP poll for 13 straight years. They put themselves in position over and over, and if a College Football Playoff had existed for Bowden, perhaps he’d have won more than two titles. (Saban entered last year’s CFP at No. 4, after all.)

Eventually, though, the ground shifted under Bowden’s feet. He lost too many key assistants and finally made missteps. When offensive coordinator Mark Richt left for Georgia, for instance, Jeff Bowden got a promotion. After ranking in the Off. S&P+ top 10 all but one year from 1982-2000 (!), the Noles soon fell to 11th, then 17th, then 53rd, then 75th.

Bowden’s Noles were never bad, but they lost at least three games in each of his last nine seasons, beginning around his 71st birthday.

Saban is 66 and looks about 55. He could have plenty of elite years left. But he’s having to replace coordinators at an increasing rate — including Steve Sarkisian’s one game as OC, he’s now working with his fourth in three seasons and his third defensive coordinator in four. Both new coordinators, Mike Locksley and Tosh Lupoi, are regarded as top recruiters but not yet the most proven tacticians. And Locksley has to deal with the type of QB controversy Saban usually avoids.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s Kirby Smart out-recruited his old boss and nearly outcoached him in the title game. He’s building a rival Death Star four and a half hours east of Tuscaloosa. Clemson’s standard keeps rising. And if Urban Meyer is still coaching this fall, he’ll have maybe his most talented Ohio State team yet.

But Bama did win it all last year — with freshmen making key plays, no less — and is the early No. 1 in 2019 recruiting. Over the next year or two, we’ll probably start to learn whether this is Saban’s last round of dominance or not.

Offense

When Tagovailoa came off the bench, he proved all of his blue-chip potential, and we all assumed he would be the starter in 2018 and beyond. It was easy to also assume, then, that incumbent starter Jalen Hurts, lab-created to be the risk-free QB Saban has long craved, might be on the way out the door.

The former assumption is likely still on pace. But Saban, Locksley, and company have attempted to prevent the latter.

It appears Hurts will be in a Bama uniform, but he’s not all that happy about everything. We’ll see how things play out.

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Alabama vs Clemson
Jalen Hurts (2) and Tua Tagovailoa (13)
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Hurts was efficient with his legs, gaining at least five yards on 52 percent of his non-sack carries and lighting up the scoreboard against less-than-elite defenses.

Still, he struggled to make plays against the better Ds. Tagovailoa did that against Georgia, but he also threw more interceptions in 77 passes (two) than Hurts did in 254 (one). More reward could require more risk.

Having a ridiculous run game won’t hurt. Damien Harris has rushed for 1,000 yards in each of the last two seasons despite splitting time with other backs and averaging under 10 carries per game each year. Backfield mate Bo Scarbrough is now a Dallas Cowboy, but odds are good that Harris’ reps won’t go up a ton, not with blue-chip sophomores Najee Harris and Brian Robinson Jr. (combined: 85 carries for 535 yards and five touchdowns last year) likely demanding more touches and junior Josh Jacobs returning to full strength.

Jacobs is the prototype of a third-down back; in two seasons, he’s averaged 6.5 yards per carry while catching 28 of 33 passes for 324 yards. So one assumes the others will vie for carries mostly on first and second down.

This potentially incredible quartet should benefit from experience up front. Four starting linemen are back, including all-conference selections Jonah Williams and Ross Pierschbacher, the two of whom have combined for 71 starts. There’s almost no proven depth, but there are plenty of former blue-chippers on the second string.

NCAA Football: Alabama at Mississippi State
Damien Harris
Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

When Tagovailoa does throw, he’s going to have a thrilling, young receiving corps. The trio of Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, and DeVonta Smith — all blue-chip sophomores — combined to catch just 33 passes last year, barely half that of departed No. 1 receiver Calvin Ridley. But they made the most of their opportunities (10.3 yards per target, plus two touchdowns in the national title game). It’s hard to assume anything but greatness.

The Tide could also benefit from two redshirt freshmen (Tyrell Shavers and Chadarius Townsend) and two incoming freshmen (Jaylen Waddle and Xavier Williams). Rare veterans like Derek Kief and Xavian Marks might struggle to maintain their spots.

The line is heavy on juniors and seniors, but really, the only other upperclassmen playing key roles could be Damien Harris and tight ends Irv Smith Jr. and Hale Hentges. The 2018 skill corps could have a higher ceiling than 2017’s, and the 2019 unit could be Saban’s best.

That’s if Locksley proves his worth. The former New Mexico head coach did produce a couple of top-30 offenses at Illinois a decade ago, but he mostly bombed as Maryland’s OC in 2012-15 and ended up as an analyst in Tuscaloosa in 2016. Turnover resulted in quick promotions. But the talent at Locksley’s disposal is better than what he had in College Park, to say the least.

Defense

Lupoi has been regarded as a master recruiter since his days as line coach at Cal and Washington, but his first coordinator job is the biggest defensive coordinator job in college football. Granted, when you’ve got Saban pulling the strings, you’ll probably be fine, but I’m curious what changes with this D.

The odds-on answer: not much. You don’t mess with perfection. Alabama has ranked first in Def. S&P+ for three straight years. It survived Smart’s departure and will probably survive new Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt’s, too.

Still, there’s more attrition than simply Pruitt’s departure. Alabama must replace last year’s top six tacklers in the secondary, plus three of five at linebacker and three of six on the line. Plus, one potential starter (linebacker Terrell Lewis) has been lost with an ACL injury, and another potential starter, safety Daniel Wright, enters battling a shoulder injury.

NCAA Football: Mercer at Alabama
Deionte Thompson (14) and Quinnen Williams (92)
Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

The concerns are stronger at the back than the front. Turnover in the secondary tends to have more of an impact on your Def. S&P+ ranking than anything else, and Bama’s is significant. There are still plenty of juniors, at least — safety Deionte Thompson had 21.5 tackles last year, corner Trevon Diggs three pass breakups as a reserve, Shyheim Carter seems a likely starter in the nickel role, and four-star JUCO Saivion Smith could start from day one at corner.

If any of this group gets hurt, though, you pretty much have to count on freshmen and little-used sophomores. Even for a Saban defense, that should result glitches.

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship Game-Alabama vs Georgia
Raekwon Davis
Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

The secondary will still benefit from the freakish Raekwon Davis, surely the only 6’7, 316-pound pass-rush specialist in the country — 8.5 of his 10 tackles for loss were sacks. And his new line coach, Craig Kuligowski, was one of the best pass-rush generators in the country at Miami and Missouri.

Davis took part in only three stuffs (run stops at or behind the line) all season, but that’s fine. Fellow end Isaiah Buggs took part in 10, and tackle Quinnen Williams was in on seven as a backup. Ends Johnny Dwight and LaBryan Ray (who combined for six TFLs among their 11 total tackles) should also assure a pretty disruptive presence. Plus, well, this is a Saban defense. Saban defenses stuff the run.

Losses at linebacker are mitigated by last year’s injuries; six players made at least 24.5 tackles, and three return, including the steady Mack Wilson and disruptive forces in junior Anfernee Jennings (six TFLs) and sophomore Dylan Moses, who made 5.5 TFLs as a backup. As long as one young blue-chipper — sophomore Ben Davis, redshirt freshman Markail Benton, or true freshman Eyabi Anoma? — comes through, the LBs will be fine. The Tide have already lost one young backer, Christopher Allen, for this season.

All eyes on the secondary, though.

Special Teams

Alabama has mastered the art of average special teams. Over the last four years, the Tide have ranked between 47th and 61st in Special Teams S&P+, falling at 52nd last year.

That was with JK Scott, though. Scott finally ran out of eligibility after ranking ninth in punt efficiency last fall. The Tide will break in all new legs after losing decent kicker in Andy Pappanastos as well. Diggs and Xavian Marks are decent punt returners, but the rest of the unit needs work.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep vs. Louisville 29 17.7 85%
8-Sep Arkansas State 66 28.0 95%
15-Sep at Ole Miss 25 13.6 78%
22-Sep Texas A&M 24 18.4 86%
29-Sep UL-Lafayette 121 42.8 99%
6-Oct at Arkansas 52 20.7 88%
13-Oct Missouri 30 20.5 88%
20-Oct at Tennessee 79 26.0 93%
3-Nov at LSU 16 10.5 73%
10-Nov Mississippi State 14 13.8 79%
17-Nov The Citadel NR 51.1 100%
24-Nov Auburn 5 7.0 66%
Projected S&P+ Rk 2
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 12 / 2
Projected wins 10.3
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 25.8 (1)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 4 / 1
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 14 / 6.6
2017 TO Luck/Game +2.6
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 58% (62%, 53%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 12.1 (0.9)

Returning production at QB, WR, and DB carry more projections weight than the other areas, because of proven statistical correlations with year-to-year improvement and regression. Bama has to replace a ton of stats at WR and DB. Therefore, the team is projected to fall all the way to second in S&P+ this year. The horror.

The Tide are still projected favorites in every game and have a projected margin under 10.5 in just one game (seven points at home vs. S&P+ No. 5 Auburn). They are, along with Clemson, the safest Playoff bet.

If last year was a sign that the end is coming for Saban, that downfall will likely have a cushion, with so many key players and semi-known quantities (Tagovailoa, the sophomore receiver trio, etc.) back through 2019. It makes it difficult to worry about the Tide, even though I’m at least a twinge curious about the new coordinator hires.

Georgia is coming on strong, Auburn remains awesome, and programs like Texas A&M and Florida hired expensive, proven successes. But Alabama is Alabama for the foreseeable future.

Team preview stats

All power conference preview data to date.