Maybe we should have suspected this was going to be a different year for Alabama when Nick Saban went on a real vacation this summer — overseas and everything — and admitted that it was actually a nice experience.
“It was for our 50th wedding anniversary, which was really in the past,” Saban said of his trip to Italy. “But I kept getting out of going because I really didn’t want to go and take 10 days to not be around. But it was a great trip and I would recommend anybody go.”
As much as Saban’s off-the-charts work ethic has been part of the story during his entire coaching career, it’s remarkable that his singular-focused compulsion to be on top of every little thing in his organization wouldn’t even allow him to consider why millions of people might enjoy visiting Italy until he turned 71 and had already won seven national titles.
And now, after allowing himself a few days to see the Vatican and the Colosseum, it’s all suddenly falling apart?
We joke about this, but you just know if Alabama loses to Ole Miss this weekend, there’s going to be some guy in Leeds or Bay Minette furiously punching in the "Paul Finebaum Show" hotline Monday afternoon, ready to put Michelangelo and da Vinci on blast for distracting Coach Saban from his mission.
Sound ridiculous? Maybe. But given how distant any real Alabama football adversity now feels and how entitled its fan base has become, the eventual decline of the Saban era is guaranteed to be theater of the absurd. They’re just not going to handle it well.
Because of how many times Saban has pivoted, reinvented and rescued seasons that seemed a little bit wobbly, rushing to declare the end of Alabama’s dominance is fraught with risk. Yet there’s enough evidence being laid out by this team to suggest that it’s already happened.
The reality is how Alabama performs Saturday will tell us everything we need to know.
A second loss for Alabama by the end of September would be unprecedented in the Saban era, but if it happens this weekend, would anybody really be surprised?
The entire concept of Alabama’s dynasty ending — an idea that first sprung up in late 2014/early 2015 — was never just about going a couple of years without winning a national championship. It was based more on the aura of this program being so overwhelmingly skilled, well-coached and physically dominant that beating them seemed like something almost superhuman.
You can’t watch Alabama lose decisively to Texas, then struggle to put away South Florida in back-to-back weeks, and not wonder whether that’s already taken place.
Because the truth is, Alabama hasn’t been physically dominant over other good teams for the last couple of years, especially on either line of scrimmage. It hasn’t been exceptionally well-coached, either, if you look at some key indicators like penalties, where the Tide ranked 123rd in the country last season and 114th in 2021.
The edge Alabama managed to retain, at least until this year, was a ridiculous stable of skill players. But without an elite quarterback like Bryce Young erasing mistakes and bad plays with his ability to improvise, the Crimson Tide have looked ordinary. Though it never seemed like Alabama was in real danger of losing to South Florida, its sluggishness moving the ball — just 310 offensive yards against a lower-rung team in the American Athletic Conference — was fairly stunning.
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Now here comes 3-0 Ole Miss with a terrific quarterback in Jaxson Dart, a swaggering Lane Kiffin and a lot of ways to push the ball down the field. When you come into a game like this and it feels like there’s real mystery about how it's going to go, even in Tuscaloosa, maybe we’re already in the post-dynasty phase.
As it stands, there are three legitimate possibilities for how this game is going to play out.
The first is that Ole Miss wins, which will knock Alabama out of the College Football Playoff conversation before the season even really gets going and add rocket fuel to the conversation about whether Saban is past his prime.
The second is that Alabama squeaks out another win while once again showing some limitations, keeping its goals for the season alive but creating more doubts about its viability as a championship contender.
And the third is that Alabama’s roster of former four- and five-star recruits finally starts playing like blue-chippers, quarterback Jalen Milroe gets more comfortable in the passing game now that he’s got a lock on the starting job and we get social media memes of a smirking Saban by the thousands on Saturday night.
Only because of Saban’s track record for finding solutions do we have to allow for the possibility that all of these outcomes are possible. If it were anyone else, we’d laugh at No. 3 as a Pollyannish dismissal of all the data that shows how ordinary this team has been.
What we should all agree on, though, is that Alabama-in-decline is a story that is closer to slapping us in the face than at any other point in Saban’s tenure. And that’s a big deal on its own when you consider there’s no precedent in college football for a team being good enough to contend for national championships every year from 2008 to 2021.
Until Saban came along, college football maintained a sort of equilibrium cycle where the bluebloods would take turns dominating over a stretch of five to seven years before falling off. Saban managed to extend that window, even double it, because of his ability to motivate and organize, amass elite talent in huge numbers and then adapt his philosophy to how the sport was evolving.
It’s hard to say there’s something big that has changed at Alabama recently, because the entire Saban era has been about change. Assistants come and go. Five-star recruits arrive, develop, go to the NFL and get replaced by a new crop. The offensive philosophy shifts based on personnel. But in the end, it always works.
So why isn’t it working now? The answer probably lies in a whole bunch of small things eroding the historical edge Saban enjoyed. If Georgia gets two or three more five-stars who might have otherwise gone to Alabama, it chips away. If NIL and the transfer rules are spreading out talent even a couple of degrees more, it chips away. If you make a questionable personnel decision on a quarterback or an assistant coach, it chips away.
Then one day you look up and Alabama isn’t that scary anymore but rather just another good team that has issues like everyone else, and a 71-year-old coach who is suddenly taking summer vacations after a lifetime of grinding over film.
If Saban loses this weekend, the recriminations are coming, and it won’t be a pleasant scene in the state of Alabama. But as he surely learned this summer walking the streets of Florence, where the House of Medici once reigned, the fall of a dynasty is rarely pleasant.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Nick Saban, Bama can't be buried yet. Ole Miss game will reveal a lot.