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Could 2017 Be Saban’s Best Coaching Job?

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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With a win, the debate about who is the greatest coach of all-time should be all but over, as Saban will have matched Alabama legend Paul “Bear Bryant” with six titles, doing so in an era that presented far more challenges than Bryant faced in the 1960s and 1970s.

Alabama will be playing for its fifth national title under Nick Saban on Monday night against Georgia. Saban will be aiming for his sixth title, having won his first at LSU in 2003.

With a win, the debate about who is the greatest coach of all-time should be all but over, as Saban will have matched Alabama legend Paul “Bear Bryant” with six titles, doing so in an era that presented far more challenges than Bryant faced in the 1960s and 1970s.

When a program has won as much as Saban’s Alabama has, championship teams tend to run together. They all run the ball well, have cyborgs on defense, and suck the life out of talented opponents. This 2017 Alabama team is a little different than its predecessors, however.

No one, of course, has the least bit of sympathy for Alabama, but the road has been bumpier than normal this season, and the Crimson Tide still find themselves just one win away from the ultimate prize.

Let’s look at four issues Saban and Alabama have battled this year as they go through final preparations for Monday’s CFP National Championship Game.

Injuries

The linebacker position has been absolutely decimated by injuries. Edge rushers Christian Miller and Terrell Lewis missed most of the regular season after going down in the season opener against Florida State. Anfernee Jennings will miss Monday’s game with a knee injury. Dylan Moses injured his foot in practice for the Sugar Bowl and is likely to miss his second straight game on Monday night. Mack Wilson missed most of November with a similar foot injury to Moses.

The biggest loss, however, was senior starting inside linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton. Alabama’s national championship teams have had a senior playing the role of the quarterback of the defense at inside linebacker. From Rolando McClain to Donta Hightower to C.J. Mosley to Reggie Ragland, the Crimson Tide have been blessed to always have a player return for his fourth season to play that role. That was Hamilton this season, before a knee injury against LSU ended his college career.

Wilson and Rashaan Evans are filling the hole more than adequately, but that’s as much of a testament to Saban and defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt for preparing them well enough to ensure a relatively seamless transition.

Offensive Balance

Alabama is on pace to finish with its fewest passing yards per game since 2009, coming into Monday’s game averaging just 193.9 yards. Even with implementing more spread-based principles over the past few years, the Crimson Tide have gone back to their roots this season, averaging 256 yards per game on the ground – the most in the Saban era.

Quarterback Jalen Hurts has again avoided mistakes, with just one interception this season, but the passing game has been inconsistent all year. The receiving corps was gutted after the 2016 season with the losses of ArDarius Stewart, O.J. Howard and Gehrig Dieter, and the unit has failed to produce a consistent complement to All-SEC standout Calvin Ridley.

Power running still works, but explosive plays certainly make scoring easier. Alabama’s passing game had 30 plays of 30 yards or longer last season under Lane Kiffin (and Steve Sarkisian for one game). This year, Alabama has just 16 such plays.

Coaching Staff

Say what you want about Lane Kiffin, but the man is an elite play-caller. He modernized the Alabama offense in his three seasons in Tuscaloosa and led Florida Atlantic to a dominant season in Conference USA in his first year as head coach of the Owls. Saban turned to the NFL to replace Kiffin, plucking tight ends coach Brian Daboll from the New England Patriots. Daboll had called plays in the NFL, with most recently with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2012, but had never done so in college. With Daboll’s identity as a college play-caller still developing, Saban’s fingerprints are all over this offense, with a heavy emphasis on ball control and the running game.

Defensively, Saban is having to deal with his defensive coordinator working two jobs in one during December and January for the second time in three years. It didn’t hurt the team in 2015, as Kirby Smart, who will be on the opposite sideline on Monday night, managed his duties as the Tide’s defensive coordinator and Georgia’s head coach successfully en route to a national title. Pruitt will leave Alabama for Tennessee after Monday’s game, but helped create a near-perfect game plan to shut down Clemson in the team’s 24-6 Sugar Bowl victory.

Saban was in this position 23 years ago, when he had been named head coach at Michigan State, but remained as Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator through their run to the NFL’s divisional playoff round in early January. He went through it himself, and he’s laid out a plan that worked for Smart and seems to be working just as well for Pruitt.

The College Football Playoff

Four of Saban’s five titles came before the playoff era, which required only one win, not two. The 2011 Alabama national championship team got to face LSU for a second time after losing to the Tigers that November. The 2012 team faced an overmatched Notre Dame team that, while deserved of its national championship game berth, was athletically inferior to Alabama. The 2009 team had to only beat a Texas team that played most of the game without Heisman Trophy finalist Colt McCoy under center.

This year is different. Alabama first had to face No. 1 Clemson, which was fresh off routs of South Carolina and Miami (FL), two teams that combined to win 19 games this season. The Tigers, as you may recall from last Monday night’s relative snoozer, didn’t score a touchdown against Alabama. In previous seasons, that would have been good enough to win it all.

There’s still one more mountain to climb this year, with a comparably talented Georgia team on deck after less than a week to prepare following the Sugar Bowl. Yes, Alabama needed the expansion to four teams to have a chance at the title this year, but beating No. 1 and No. 3 seven days apart would be just another remarkable accomplishment for Saban.

This all said, this argument becomes moot if Georgia takes down the Tide on Monday night. A loss wouldn’t take away from what Saban pulled off this season, but given his past success, it would be illogical to suggest his best coaching job came in a season that ended with a defeat.

Saban will surpass Bear Bryant in the annals of history with a win on Monday night, but he’ll also surpass his younger self in terms of a single-season coaching accomplishment. Even at age 66, Saban is still raising his own bar.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.