24 hours later, 2014 ‘Bama season may be Saban’s best effort yet

ITKI wanted to win the championship. Heck, we all did. And until a string of boneheaded decisions, poor execution and an inspired Buckeye team took the game over just before halftime, it looked like we were on our way to another souvenir. The dilemma we Bama fans face every time we go to our t-shirt drawer is a problem literally no other college football fan has to consider.

championship-shirtsBut in retrospect, the job Nick Saban and company did in constructing the 2014 version of Alabama football may be their best Renoir painting in a gallery of “sips and strokes” canvases around the SEC. When you consider the challenges at hand, that Alabama was the #1 seed in the first ever College Football Playoff semifinal is nothing short of amazing.

“But Alabama has so much talent…” That’s an easy argument to debunk, so thank you for bringing it up. You’d be hard pressed find a program that loses more under underclassmen to the NFL…EVERY YEAR…than the Crimson Tide. And yet, somehow every season Alabama head coach Nick Saban puts together a beast that Bama’s opponents have to play a near perfect game to beat.

Admittedly, these have been fun too...with more sure to come.

Admittedly, these have been fun too…with more sure to come.

Do you think Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix and/or Vinnie Sunseri could’ve added some assistance to the Tide’s defensive backfield issues this year? Yeah, me too. Add defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan and Bama entered 2014 with three experienced bodies short on the defensive side of the ball…veterans who could’ve made a difference. The year before it was cornerback Dee Milliner, the year before cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (the Peyton Manning career killer), linebacker Dont’a Hightower and safety Mark Barron…the year before Rolondo McClain and Kareem Jackson. This season it will be safety Landon Collins and possibly a couple more.

And these are just the defensive players in the Saban era who’ve left early for well-earned NFL paydays.

The fact is, there isn’t a program who swims in this pool like Alabama. Offering players an early entry to millions in the NFL is one of Saban’s strategies, but being able to pull off competitive football year in and year out while doing so is what separates him from the Gussy Malzahns of the college football world, who tread water year in and year out just to try and keep up. (Wonder if the “team rule” Sammy Coates was being punished for in the Outback Bowl was “declaring early?”)

Secondly, Alabama ran into an Ohio State team with three quality quarterbacks. Bama barely had one. That will change this season with the continued development of Alec Morris, Cooper Bateman and David Cornwell, not to mention Jacob Coker and the incoming phenom Blake Barnett, an early enrollee. But Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones, their third option, looked nothing short of Jamarcus Russell (the college version) in his 2nd college start, both championship caliber games. He had the size, speed and arm to make ‘Bama pay, and that he did. All while Alabama used a converted runningback/defensive back/athlete to win the state, division and SEC Championship game. Not saying the talent isn’t on campus in Tuscaloosa for QB, but I am saying it wasn’t yet ready to take out of the oven. Meanwhile, State had three pies ready to take out and serve immediately.

Also this year, Bama won its 28th conference championship (24 SEC, 4 Southern) without a real running game to speak of. TJ Yeldon isn’t the power back in the Ingram, Richardson or Lacy mold. More of a slasher, when Bama needed tough yards this and last season, getting them has required a more creative effort. Not to mention that the guy played over half the season nursing serious injuries. Derrick Henry is great in space, but still hasn’t proven he can run behind his shoulder pads and tote the mail with authority when needed. Who knows what may have been this year had Kenyan Drake not suffered his gruesome injury at Ole Miss. But getting yards on the ground was a challenge all season behind an offensive line that was good but not great. Bo Scarborough, another early enrollee, will prove to be an immediate contributor in the Tide’s backfield next season, as many have compared him already to Adrian Peterson in terms of running style. And whatever held Tyren Jones off the field this year will hopefully be amended for 2015, as #20 ran angrier than any of the Tide’s backs this season.

And don’t overlook that Alabama head coach Nick Saban also took the Tide into the 2014 campaign with his fourth different offensive coordinator in his eight seasons at the Capstone. Major Applewhite, Jim McElwain, Doug Nussmeier and now Lane Kiffin have all served as OC, all while having just two defensive coordinators in the same amount of time (few remember that current linebackers coach Kevin Steele actually preceded Kirby Smart as DC). This is an offensive system that has evolved a bit to say the least, and this year’s version was the Tide’s first dip-of-the-toe in the world of pass happy, sometimes hurry up football. If Kiffin makes good on his intentions to return next season, watch out. There won’t be an Amari Cooper (ANOTHER early draftee), but the Tide receiving corps is covered with top receivers from past #1 signing classes.

Despite these challenges, for the seventh year in a row, the Alabama Crimson Tide finished the season with double digit wins (a feat no other SEC team can match in this era of football), and for the third time in that span, the Tide proved to be the Champions of the toughest conference in the land (despite what bowl apologists want to say).

2008: 12-2
2009: 14-0 SEC & National Champs
2010: 10-3
2011: 13-1 National Champs
2012: 13-1 SEC & National Champs
2013: 11-2
2014: 12-2 SEC Champs
(I don’t see an 8-5 in there)

Bama tightroped through many a game, dropping a contest (or perfect storm) at Ole Miss, while coming out on top at Arkansas, LSU and at home against the barn and Mississippi State. There was the occasional Texas A&M and Florida games this season, but for the most part 2014 was played much closer to the vest in what was to be a rebuilding year.

Yes, Nick Saban and company deserve a hand for the job they did with this 2014 team.

Yes, Nick Saban and company deserve a hand for the job they did with this 2014 team.

But instead of a rebuilding year, Bama took its rightful place among the greats of college football, writing its name in history in the first ever college football playoff.

And for that I say, while 2009, 2011 and 2012 will always live on in Alabama football history, 2014 should be remembered in similar fashion. This team going 12-2 proves yet again the greatest coach in the game today is earning his salary year in and year out.

While some programs have a flash-in-the-pan year and 8-5 records the rest of the time (sorry Auburn, Ole Miss and Mississippi State), and others never achieve anything close to their full potential (sorry Georgia and LSU), and others are simply a forgotten joke (sorry Tennessee and Florida), Alabama is in the championship mix every…single…year.

Some schools talk about what’s going to happen next year…for instance, I happened to be listening to the barn’s broadcast of their FIFTH loss of the season as their announcer actually said, and I quote, “So the Tigers fall to 8-5 on the year, but take heart Auburn fans. The last time we were 8-5 with a loss in the Outback Bowl we won the National Championship the following year.” And you barners wonder why we laugh at such group-think propaganda, tagging you as the cult that you are.

But at Alabama, all we have to do to look forward to contending for it all again is be patient, waiting just a few months. You know, until football kicks off again in August.


(Follow ITK on Twitter for Bama news, commentary and smack.)