TideSports College Football Preview

This could be the greatest season ever for University of Alabama football. It could be the most disappointing.

There seem to be no options in between.

Five national championships in nine years have contributed to that. Added to the mix is a second-half comeback against Georgia in the College Football Playoff Championship, an ending that confirmed to Alabama fans and Alabama haters alike that the Crimson Tide isn’t just the king of college football but is some sort of immortal hybrid of players, coaching and some otherworldly wizardry. If the Crimson Tide could wriggle out of the chains of a missed field goal at the end of regulation, of a second-and-26 in overtime, then what can bind it securely?

The expectations are always present in Tuscaloosa, of course. For 60 years now, that standard has been set. Even coming off of bad years, Alabama has expected good years. Coming off of good years, the confidence grew thicker. But the atmosphere heading into 2018 seems to be of a different kind, almost from a different planet where the air contains 60 percent less nitrogen and 60 percent more swagger.

The perception is that Nick Saban, at 66, is at peak prowess. If, the theory goes, he will have the quarterback that Alabama fans have been waiting for since 1964, when Joe Namath ended his collegiate career in the Texas end zone (the officials did not agree, but we are talking about a theory here) in the Orange Bowl. The new Namath will be Tua Tagovailoa, if and when Saban declares him the starter. (Let’s not talk about the fate of Jalen Hurts in this scenario.) Combined with the rest of the offensive personnel, the new era will see an unstoppable offense and even if the defense loses a half-step compared to recent teams, it will hardly matter. This is not some parody of “crazy” Alabama fans, either. Reasonable people think this. “National experts,” self-proclaimed and otherwise, agree. Nothing is unanimous in the world, but the belief is widespread.

And it drives Saban crazy.

Who else in sports is held to such a standard? LeBron James? He is expected to lead his teams to NBA titles, but not to win every game. Where is the time for development, the margin for error? Not in Tuscaloosa.

“Every team has its problems,” Saban said at a recent press conference, sounding like a hiker shouting into the Grand Canyon and hearing only one answer in agreement: the echo of his own voice.

Even the grimmest pessimist would refrain from arguing that Alabama won’t be strong this season. There are too many good players with championship experience. The long debate about the quarterbacks exists, in part, because the one who has fallen out of favor has started in 26 wins in two seasons. The younger one might be better, but there nothing that suggests that any decision Saban makes at the position would trigger a 5-7 season. The schedule is smooth, although some great Alabama teams have been derailed from championship contention by curious losses over the years — in 1962 against Georgia Tech or 1977 against a good but not great Nebraska team that had lost its season opener to Washington State the week before. There’s a reason why Alabama hasn’t gone undefeated since 2009, and the longer the season gets the tougher it is to run the table.

The table is there, however. There is no way around it. Alabama either makes it through 15 games unscathed or the guests, fairly or not, will leave muttering. The greatest season, or something less than that, are the only options.

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

TideSports College Football Preview