<
>
Insider

Alabama's shot at a three-peat

1/8/2013

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The word "dynasty" has been used to describe Alabama's current run, and it's going to be instantly linked to the program in the next year.

The Crimson Tide going for three BCS championships in a row and four in five years? Concluding the BCS era with three consecutive titles? You would likely have Bama Dynasty Fatigue, exasperating I'm sure for those already suffering from SEC Fatigue.

"What gets me is this is the time in college football when that's supposed to be impossible," one coach at the American Football Coaches Association convention said. "We all know exactly how it's happening, with coaching and all those players, but we're still amazed by it."

Without much else left to say, he then offered profanity. It's frustrating to deal with this, to be compared to this standard. It's irritating in a friendly way, though. No one is vengeful about Bama's fortunes. It's more of a "dang that guy" sentiment with Nick Saban.

Another coach joked that he'd like to see the SEC's 13 other schools pool their money to send Saban back to the NFL.

"Let's give him a $100 million contract," he said, laughing. "Would that do it? Here you go, Browns. Here's Nick and an armored car."

There are several strong candidates to unseat Alabama as the nation's best team next season, including an Oregon team returning coach Chip Kelly and a lot of talented athletes (starting with quarterback Marcus Mariota and dynamic RB/WR De'Anthony Thomas) and an Ohio State team coming off an undefeated season and now postseason-eligible. (Check out colleague Mark Schlabach's early top 25 ranking today for a whole list of possible contenders.)

But Alabama should be the clear-cut choice as the favorite to win it all again next season -- a team with the potential to be better than the one we saw crush Notre Dame 42-14 Monday night.

I already felt that way, and then I heard Saban, on the eve of the national championship win, say that the 2012 team exceeded his expectations. Media and fan expectations were still relatively high, but for Saban to assert that the team was ahead of schedule after losing all that it did, that was a strong statement in my mind about the 2013 team.

I wrote in the preseason that the Tide would "be even stronger in 2013," and while Bama certainly will lose some very good players from this season's unit, which finished fifth nationally in yards per play and second nationally in yards per play allowed, there are still reasons to believe that improvement is possible. (Vegas agrees: Alabama opened at 3-1 odds to win the 2013 title, with the next closest team, Oregon, opening at 8-1.)

The offensive line will be hit hardest, most notably by the loss of do-everything leader Barrett Jones at center and possible top-10 draft pick Chance Warmack at guard, but the Tide haven't exactly struggled in replenishing the offensive line under Saban. There will be some defensive question marks -- defensive tackle and cornerback, for starters -- but arguably fewer issues than the team had going into 2012. And you don't have to look any further than key freshman contributors T.J. Yeldon and Amari Cooper to know the pipeline of young talent ready to shine for the Tide hasn't dried up.

Moreover, the schedule breaks nicely for the Tide. They have just five games on their 2013 slate against Football Bowl Subdivision teams that had winning records this season and only two against teams with more than eight wins (at Texas A&M in Week 3, LSU at home in Week 11). No SEC schedule is ever considered easy, but the fact that Saban's team won't have to face Florida, Georgia or South Carolina in the regular season gives a boost to its chances of winning the West division.

Per usual, the rest of the country will be chasing the SEC in 2013. But this era of dominance is starting to narrow. For a while, the crown was traded from Southern burg to Southern burg -- Gainesville, Baton Rouge, Gainesville, Tuscaloosa, Auburn, Tuscaloosa.

Tuscaloosa.

This marks the first time in seven championships that a school has won back-to-back titles, and three in a row doesn't seem at all unreasonable. No, it seems likely, as likely as any modern-era trifecta could.

Takeaways from bowl season

• I went into the bowl season believing that the Texas A&M Aggies, Baylor Bears and Stanford Cardinal, in that order, were the hottest teams in the country. Nothing happened in December and early January to alter that perception.

The 11-2 Aggies, even with their hotshot, Heisman-winning quarterback gallivanting all over the country, destroyed an Oklahoma team that had been competitive in every game all season. Sooners assistants I spoke with were still marveling at how Johnny Manziel is used -- and what he does with his own talent and of his own volition.

With Manziel leading the way, learning in the process how to become a passer (coaches' words, not mine), the Aggies averaged 46.2 points a game in their six-game win streak to finish the season -- a run that included victories against Alabama and Oklahoma.

What would have happened if A&M had one more year in the Big 12? Would it have been playing Monday night? We'll never know, but it's an interesting scenario to think about. The team I saw from the middle of October on would have had no rival in the Big 12, but would someone have gotten to the Aggies before then?

I alluded to this earlier, but go ahead and mark it down: Sept. 14, A&M and Alabama at Kyle Field. It was one of the games of the year in 2012, and it could be again next season.

• Stanford was, true to form, mechanical in its win against Wisconsin. The Cardinal (12-2) won their final eight games and, with apologies to A&M and its close losses, were closer than any team to an undefeated season. They basically had the Notre Dame game won, and with only a fourth-down stop or two of Washington, the Cardinal could have held off the Huskies in that upset. That's pretty close.

Freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan, once coach David Shaw and coordinator Pep Hamilton went to him, really propped up the team in the weeks following the losses. He became progressively more confident and gave Cardinal fans additional hope for a future that includes Barry Sanders' son, who redshirted this season.

Some see Stanford as a top-five team in 2013. I'm not sure I'd go that far, but the reason some do is because it cemented in 2012 the belief that it's a program and not a generational team. Recent years of top-25 recruiting classes make that more evident.

• Baylor, at 8-5, is sort of the runt of this group, but the Bears have been recognized by some metrics as being considerably better than their record and unranked status in the final Associated Press poll. They won four of their final five games and were convincing in their upsets of then-No. 1 Kansas State and in the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl against then-No. 17 UCLA.

They did it with balance, finding a budding star in running back Lache Seastrunk. The Oregon transfer had 181 rushing yards in the first seven games, carrying the ball sparingly, but he finished the season with 1,012 yards. Five of his final six games, coinciding with Baylor's uptick, were 100-plus-yard performances.

Look at all the program lost in 2012 and Baylor's finish is that much more impressive. The school -- working on a new riverside stadium -- also headed off advances for coach Art Briles. It isn't at an elite level yet, but it's at least moved to a point at which it's knocking off elite teams on a regular basis.

• What's a bowl win mean, anyway? In seeking the value of one, I looked toward the programs I most recently covered on a daily basis, South Carolina and Oklahoma, as evidence.

I covered South Carolina teams that lost bowls to Iowa (Outback), Connecticut (Papajohns.com) and Florida State (Chick-fil-A) before breaking through the past two seasons against Nebraska (Capital One) and Michigan (Outback).

"Oh, it makes a difference," one Gamecocks assistant said, "a big difference."

Recruits care, sort of, but it's more for the fans -- which is important. You want fans feeling good about the program, buying tickets, etc. And they feel better if the team is riding a win into the offseason. That's especially the case at South Carolina, where the New Year's bowl wins in 2012 and 2013 meant the most single-season victories (11) in program history each season.

On the other end of things, the Sooners getting stomped by Texas A&M left fans feeling a familiar thud in prime-time postseason games. It evoked memories of Fiesta Bowl losses to Boise State and West Virginia and the title game loss to Florida. It induced sharp newspaper columns too. Tulsa columnist John Hoover wrote Sunday that Bob Stoops and the coaching staff was to blame for ill-preparedness in bigger bowl matchups. Who knows whether that's true, or how much it's true, but the fact that so many fans agreed with Hoover was disconcerting for the program.

On top of that, our SoonerNation site reported Monday night that OU had postponed its upcoming junior day. Turns out the Sooners aren't steady enough in the 2013 class to get to the 2014 prospects. Yikes. Oklahoma is still an elite program, but I've written several times this season that it's teetering. It doesn't feel on the way up at all, does it?

Would beating Texas A&M have fixed everything going on with a program fighting stagnation? Not really. But it would have helped.

• The bowl season's breakout player was Louisville Cardinals quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. I'm glad that Bridgewater, whom I'd labeled since October as a 2013 Heisman candidate, could make me look intelligent in Louisville's upset of Florida in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Appreciate that one, Teddy.

The reality is that Bridgewater had been fairly consistent during the majority of his sophomore season. He went from a 14-to-12 TD-INT ratio his freshman year to 25-7 in 2012 entering the bowl. And he brought it against the Gators. What was up with them defensively, anyway? That's why you just never know with bowls. Florida had been steady as could be on defense all season but just didn't have focus against the Cardinals.

In hindsight, we should have seen that result as a possibility. Louisville was galvanized by coach Charlie Strong's decision to spurn Tennessee's handsome offer. Plus, about 30 of Louisville's players -- Bridgewater included -- are from Florida, many of whom weren't recruited by the big three schools in the state for various reasons, leaving a discernible chip on their collective shoulders.

Who knew that the ACC's big blow of the bowl season would be struck by a future member? I'm sure the conference office was delighted; it needed the boost.