New season presents new challenges for Saban

Alabama’s Jalen Hurts (2) is seen on the bench with Tua Tagovailoa (13) head coach Nick Saban during the second half of the NCAA college football playoff championship game against Georgia Monday, Jan. 8, 2018, in Atlanta
Alabama’s Jalen Hurts (2) is seen on the bench with Tua Tagovailoa (13) head coach Nick Saban during the second half of the NCAA college football playoff championship game against Georgia Monday, Jan. 8, 2018, in Atlanta AP

In his first 11 seasons at Alabama, Nick Saban has managed just about every scenario imaginable entering a new season. New starting quarterback. New offensive coordinator. New defensive coordinator. A laundry list of players lost to the NFL.

Through it all, The Process just keeps churning out one national championship after another after another.

Just when it looked like Saban was running out of rebuilding scenarios, along comes the most intriguing and most daunting – well, for ordinary coaches – one yet.

It’s all of the above. Actually, it’s all of the above and then some.

Start with the coaching staff. For the second time in three years, Bama will have a new defensive coordinator with Jeremy Pruitt leaving to become head coach at Tennessee, replaced by Tosh Lupoi. For the second consecutive year – and seven time in 12 seasons under Saban – the Tide will have a new offensive coordinator. Brian Daboll returned to the NFL after one season at Alabama. Mike Locksley, who had been the receivers coach, takes over.

Jeff Banks takes over as special teams coordinator.

That’s not all, though. Nine members of the Crimson Tide coaching staff are either new or in new roles. That doesn’t include Saban’s latest reclamation project of fired head coaches. Butch Jones, whom Pruitt replaced at Tennessee, is now an analyst, which at Alabama has come to mean coordinator in waiting.

Through it all, nothing has really changed.

“I am really pleased with the transition, how the players have sort of responded from relationship standpoint with all of those coaches, how those coaches have done a very good job of buying into the things that we want to do and how we want to do them,” Saban said. “The new energy and enthusiasm and ideas that they brought to the organization I think are going to be a long-term positive.”

Delving into the long list of starters to replace, mostly on defense, is pointless for now. Saban isn’t going to shed any light on how position battles are shaping up, which is understandable. Why give any player an excuse to lighten up between now and the start of the season?

“We have a lot of young players who have the opportunity to step up,” Saban said. “Some of them very talented. But how well we do that, how the older players on the team assume their new role of leadership, all of these things will determine how fast we get to where we need to be and where we can be as a team.”

What’s likely to change is the starting quarterback. It might be unprecedented for a quarterback with 28 consecutive starts – two of those in national championship games – to find himself beaten out by a sophomore with zero career starts. But that’s probably what’s going to happen at Alabama.

Saban’s not about to say it. Not only is he concerned about Hurts transferring if he’s not starting, but he wants to ensure that Tua Tagovailoa wins the job in practice, something he was unable to do in the spring after injuring his hand.

But CBS analyst Gary Danielson, who started in the NFL and gets to watch teams practice, indicated that the talent level between Hurts and Tagovailoa isn’t that close.

“I think after a while, Jalen thought Tua was a special talent and could play,” Danielson said in an interview with The Tide 102.9 at SEC Football Media Days. “I think his teammates started to see it (and think), ‘How do you keep this guy on the bench?’ I think a tension began to arise. I think the coaching staff started to realize, ‘We have a special player. How do we manage that?’ I think it started to affect Jalen’s play. I think he could feel the pressure of having a good quarterback behind him. I think he stopped taking a lot of chances. I think the play calling suffered. I think the coaches didn’t want to entrust Jalen with certain throws.”

So Saban’s challenge this season is to make sure the players are unified behind whomever plays quarterback. Mere details for the greatest coach in college football history. He’ll figure it. Is anybody willing to bet against him?