Hours before Alabama was thoroughly dismantled as more than a two-touchdown favorite in the Sugar Bowl, it landed yet another outstanding commitment. Tony Brown, the No. 9 ranked player according to 247Sports and one of the best cornerbacks in the class of 2014, committed to Nick Saban during the nationally televised Under Armour All-America Game.
It seems like a consolation given the unexpected on-field carnage that ensued shortly after, with the Crimson Tide still picking up the pieces of the night that was. Yet, in many ways, the pledge of the Texas star is much more than just another 5-star as a desperate position of need.
On a night when Nick Saban’s secondary was torched, Brown's pledge signifies the current state of Alabama football: Constant, dominant (even at the lowest of lows) and ever-changing. And there’s absolutely no reason to believe this assembly line will stop producing.
Talent leaves and new talent steps in. It’s why you can absorb the losses of quarterback AJ McCarron and linebacker C.J. Mosley—two exceptional talents and leaders who will be dearly missed in 2014—and still feel optimistic about what's ahead.
Nothing feels good in the current state, of course. Alabama’s 45-31 loss to Oklahoma on Thursday night was a Saban low point of sorts, at least statistically speaking.
Give credit to Oklahoma. The offensive game plan was brilliant, and quarterback Trevor Knight delivered the game of his young career.
Each completed second-half pass for Knight was adding to his career high. He made it look easy at times, easily carving up a defense ripe with future NFL players. When Alabama appeared to finally pick up a little momentum, such momentum was halted with a third-down conversion, penalty or missed opportunity.
"I actually thought that the players responded in practice pretty well for this game," Saban said, via USA Today. "We put over 500 yards of offense up. Somebody had to do something right. I don't think that we played as well on defense as we're capable of or should have."
The end result is a loss in a major game, a rarity for the program. It was also the first time in five years Alabama lost two games in a row, a remarkable stat that is both hard to fathom and somehow not surprising.
With this losing streak enters doubt, something the program isn’t all that familiar with.
There was doubt when Alabama lost to Texas A&M last season, prompting state officials to publicly question the team’s head coach for his play-calling late in the game. Before that, there was doubt following Alabama’s special teams-driven debacle in a regular-season loss to LSU.
Now, doubt will surface over consecutive losses and the losses of key players that have been a fixture of this dynasty—and that’s exactly what it is—for the past five years.
Expectations will shift for the time being, and perhaps they should. Better yet, maybe they were unreasonable in the first place. As unreasonable as they might be, however, don’t believe for a second that Alabama will somehow become an afterthought.
Even on a night when seemingly nothing went right, the team unearthed another star. Freshman running back Derrick Henry came in with enormous recruiting hype and exploded in the final game of his first season. His 161 yards from scrimmage and two total touchdowns—headlined by this ridiculous 61-yard touchdown catch—is simply a sign of things to come.
Henry will be joined by T.J Yeldon in the backfield in 2014, who has unlimited potential if he can simply hold onto the football. Amari Cooper will be back and healthy at wide receiver, ready to return to 2012 form. Tight end O.J. Howard will be the nation’s biggest matchup nightmare, poised for an enormous season after a quiet bowl.
They’ll have to find someone to throw and hand off the ball, an issue that cannot be downplayed, but there are dynamic weapons in place.
Defensively, Alabama will continue to replenish its losses with young talent. Linebacker Reuben Foster will step in and instantly become the next great player at the position. A defensive line that featured a lot of youth this season will grow up some, and this soon could become a strength for this team.
The short term is not without its concerns—with the offensive line and defensive backfield clearly requiring fixing—but the outlook is still promising. And with yet another top recruiting class brewing, the future of the program remains overwhelmingly bright.
This is where the short- and long-term outlooks collide, and it’s also why Alabama has been positioned on pedestal by its lonesome.
There’s a distinct possibility that Alabama will finish with the nation’s No. 1 ranked recruiting class (again), a spot it currently sits comfortably at on 247Sports. The roster will lose key contributors, but it will develop young players and add potential future stars—like the gifted Tony Brown—into the mix in the coming months.
Expectations will change, but they shouldn't change much.
Maybe the days of winning back-to-back national championships are behind Alabama—a ridiculous bar it set for itself over the past few seasons—but it also seems foolish to brace for a falling sky given the bigger picture.