There’s a preferred way to start the year — any year, every year — in Tuscaloosa that goes something like this.

Alabama starts the New Year with a win in a semifinal playoff game, then follows that with another win after a week or so to claim the national championship of college football. There is much mirth among fans. Then comes a parade, a celebration of good feelings. Prospects visit and bask in the glow. About three weeks pass and many of those prospects sign with Alabama, clinching a No. 1 recruiting class — another national championship! — and the cycle of success completes itself, the talent is replenished and the fan base can boast about literally everything without accepting a word of dissent from any rival.

There have been slight deviations off course sometimes. The No. 1 recruiting classes, though, have been a constant since Nick Saban began recruiting full-time at Alabama and landed, in February 2008, what is still the gold standard of Crimson Tide recruiting classes. Every year since, at least one recruiting service has proclaimed Alabama’s class to be No. 1 in the nation. Usually, it’s been unanimous. Until this year.

Suddenly, something happened. Perhaps it wasn’t so suddenly. But after long years at the top, Alabama slid a bit on Wednesday. It wasn’t a disaster. The Crimson Tide finished with a national ranking of around No. 6 or No. 7, the second-best in the SEC.

Alabama had a pair of critical signees on Wednesday, starting with Patrick Surtain Jr., the nation’s No. 1 cornerback and a prospect who had seemed firmly in LSU coach Ed Orgeron’s crab-crushing mitts for most of the past two years. The close came with coveted wide receiver/kick returner Jaylen Waddle from Houston, the only one of the top 15 Texas prospects to leave the Lone Star Star.

The middle of the day’s sandwich, though, was not the prime rib Alabama fans are accustomed to enjoying. Instead they were gnawing on the gristle and bone of disappointment, with players recommitting or picking another school after narrowing their choice to Alabama and one other. That even happened twice with in-state prospects as the Crimson Tide finished with its smallest in-state group (two) in history, an assertion that requires no research to verify.

So what does it mean? That’s a different question. Is it truly the end of a cycle, one that’s going to be reflected on the field in a couple of years? Or is a one-year correction, a blip between what was a great 2017 class (you did watch the national championship game, right?) and another great one to come in 2019?

There were structural reasons why Alabama’s No. 1 streak ended that were apparent as far back as last summer. The numbers were going to be smaller, for one thing. It was very unlikely, given the talent on hand, that Alabama was going to land a five-star quarterback or running back and get the rankings bump that comes with it.

The usual geographic area where Alabama thrives wasn’t particularly prospect-rich — not only did the Crimson Tide sign as many prospects from South Carolina as it did from Alabama, but it signed more from Indiana (1) than Georgia (0), more from Utah (1) than Mississippi. The coaching staff turnover that comes most years cost Alabama a five-star or two, although Saban deflected a question about that by praising the new coaches that he has hired and the relationships they will develop. Still, he knew that the timing wasn’t necessarily perfect.

“What’s the most competitive thing we do around here?” he asked rhetorically. “Play a game. The next most competitive thing is recruit players … We won a lot of battles in this recruiting. Continuity helps you win battles in recruiting.”

Saban strongly refuted a question about whether Alabama “struck out.” He said Alabama did well in areas of need, especially the secondary and while he would have liked another defensive lineman and another inside linebacker, he seemed confident that those needs would be addressed next year.

People, inside and outside the Alabama program, constantly look for the first sign of a “crack” in the dynasty. Maybe this was it, maybe not. But even if it is, Saban isn’t going to let it grow any wider through neglect.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or 205-722-0225.

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