Nick Saban isn’t aiming for a place in history on Monday night. That has already been assured, regardless of how his 2017 team finishes its year against the Georgia Bulldogs. The Alabama coach, leading the Crimson Tide into an amazing sixth national championship game in nine years, is establishing a record that will stand far beyond the current playoff format. If he lifts the championship trophy Monday night, it will be the sixth time he has done so, the fifth at Alabama. The total would equal Paul “Bear” Bryant’s. The comparisons began long ago, although the only statement that can be made without debate is that Bryant dominated the poll era — when voters decided the national champion — and Saban has dominated the playoff era in both its two-team and four-team incarnation.
Georgia may win the game, of course. The teams are evenly matched, by design. The Bulldogs are healthy, having avoided Alabama’s hard luck, a run of significant injuries that has gone on for a year-and-a-half and sidelined such talents as Shaun Dion Hamilton (twice), Eddie Jackson, Bo Scarborough and now Anfernee Jennings, Lester Cotton and Dylan Moses. This seems like a charmed year for the Bulldogs with their close wins over Notre Dame and Oklahoma.
Despite all that, and perhaps on reputation alone, Alabama is the favorite. If the Crimson Tide wins, the victory will be treated as par for the course, not the extraordinary achievement it will be.
Getting to this point has been tougher for Alabama than people realize. We have reached a point where wins and even championships are greeted with a shrug.
Saban, in his pregame comments, showed that he knew it hasn’t been easy — but sounded philosophical about it.
“I think that I’m always looking for the next challenge,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s the way I was raised or whatever, that you’re kind of only as good as your last play, as your last game. I think everyone has heard me talk a lot about the fact that success is not a continuum, it’s momentary, and it’s human nature to get satisfied and get a little complacent when you have success.
“But in a competitive business like we are in, there’s always a next challenge, there’s always a next game, there’s always a better team to play. If you have that (complacent) mindset, you’re not going to be able to play with any consistency, and if you can’t play with consistency in performance, you’re not going to really have a lot of success long-term.
“You’re always ready for the next challenge, and you always understand that people are going to be a little bit satisfied, and you have to make sure that everyone is ready for the next challenge.”
At some point, the question will be whether Saban’s challenge is guiding the Alabama juggernaut year after year, or whether he will want to try something new, a challenge that doesn’t involve a constant struggle against complacency. The game against Georgia isn’t the time to confront that. Instead, Alabama has to face another challenger, to show that it learned from last year’s loss to Clemson. It has to show that manhandling the Tigers in a rematch was only part of proving that the failure, as Saban himself called it, was not wasted.
That will set up yet another rematch with complacency, a bridge that will have to be crossed once more if Alabama wins. But is there an alternative?
“I hate to lose,” Saban said again on Sunday. That should be enough of an answer.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.