Every sports dynasty must eventually end. We know this. History and logic tell us as much.
The thing is, though, we don’t always see the end coming. It would be one thing if Tom Brady or Bill Belichick decided to retire. It’s quite another when Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Whitey Ford suddenly aged overnight.
Chances are that will be the case with Alabama football, at least as long as Nick Saban is still coaching. We probably won’t see it coming until after the fact.
Alabama’s run under Saban has been one of the most remarkable sports dynasties ever, and maybe the single greatest dynasty ever in college sports. One could make a case for UCLA men’s basketball with 10 championships in 12 seasons, including seven straight. But it’s harder to keep repeating in football because rosters are so large and injuries are so prevalent, and basketball teams can be built around one dominant player.
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Five national championships in nine seasons does not come close to telling the whole story of Alabama’s dynasty.
For one thing, it’s probably not even over. For another, to just count trophies does not begin to tell how difficult it has been for the Crimson Tide to keep winning at such a high level.
Two of the most amazing but lesser-known statistics in sports are Jack Nicklaus’s 19 second-place finishes in majors and Nolan Ryan’s 12 one-hitters (and 18 two-hitters). As legendary as their accomplishments were, they could have been that much greater.
So it is with Alabama. If you go back one season before Saban’s first national championship at Alabama, when the Crimson Tide lost to Florida in the SEC Championship Game. Counting that season, Alabama was in the national champion picture until losing to the eventual national champion all but once in 10 consecutive seasons. The lone exception was 2010, when the Tide lost to South Carolina and to LSU, making the loss to Auburn irrelevant to them in the big picture.
When will it end? How will it end? No one knows.
All of that is to provide proper context to this notion, one initially proposed in the immediate aftermath of Bama’s last-play win over Georgia two weeks ago in the national championship game:
The Bulldogs under Kirby Smart represent the biggest threat to Alabama since Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa.
Yes, it’s early yet in Smart’s tenure. He still has a lot to prove as a head coach, whether it’s big game management or managing the weight of expectations that come with being the favorite week in and week out.
Both of those things matter a lot.
But what matters most is talent. Georgia is quickly closing the gap on Alabama in terms of talent.
The narrative about the Bulldogs was this past season represented their best shot to beat Alabama. But a study of the rosters suggests otherwise. The official participation chart from the championship game shows that the two teams will have roughly the same amount of turnover. For Alabama, 19 players from that game are gone — 13 starters and six substitutes. Eight of those starters were on defense. Georgia must replace 15 — 10 starters and five substitutes.
“Yeah, but Alabama’s freshman class was stacked.”
No argument there. Saban assembled the top-ranked recruiting class in the country in 2017. Five true freshman played huge roles on offense for Alabama in the fourth quarter and overtime against Georgia.
But Georgia’s freshman class was ranked No. 2 or No. 3, according to most of those rating services. So far this year, Georgia is ranked No. 1 with just over two weeks before signing day. Of course, it would be foolish to dismiss Alabama’s chances of soaring to the top. But with many players already locked up under the new early signing period, this guarantees to be another great signing class for Smart.
Alabama still has a distinct edge over Georgia in what will be the junior and senior classes this fall. But in terms of underclassmen, it’s a virtual wash. One more strong recruiting class in 2019, combined with another year of attrition for both programs, would make the rosters even more comparable.
Another reason Georgia has a good chance to get back into the SEC Championship Game is its schedule. The East remains weak with Florida and Tennessee rebuilding. The toughest non-conference opponent is Georgia Tech. The toughest road conference games are at South Carolina and LSU. Not that either of those games will be easy, and Auburn will always be tough. But by then, those young players contributing on defense will be experienced.
All of this points to what could be an epic Alabama-Georgia showdown for the SEC Championship and, most likely, a spot in the College Football Playoff.