When Alabama head football coach Nick Saban first arrived in Tuscaloosa, he was greeted at the airport by fans in a frenzy of almost messianic zeal. The “chosen one” had arrived to pull their beloved program out of decade-long doldrums and return it to heights of glory that can only be imagined.
The surging crowd jostled to touch their anointed savior, to bask in the radiance of his magnificence. One inebriated woman snared Saban in a sloppy embrace and made herself into a YouTube star with her now-famous kiss.
The consensus among the delirious Bama fans at the airport, as well as those in living rooms, barbershops, cafés, and water coolers around the state, was that it wasn’t a matter of if, but when Saban would restore the Tide football program to dominance.
Most non-Alabama fans, including the majority of those in the media, snickered into their hands, writing off the hyperbole as just version 236 of the same unrealistic expectations that were bandied about by the most unrealistic fanbase in college football year after year.
Saban’s unsteady first season, which included a November loss to mighty mite Louisiana-Monroe, gave the naysayers even more fodder. The Magic Saban certainly looked human.
Fast-forward. One year after one of the most ignoble defeats in Alabama history, Saban and the Tide sit undefeated and number one in the BCS standings with just two regular season games remaining.
The team wrapped up the SEC West crown with a road victory at LSU and will face Florida in the title game. Alabama is two short putts and a makeable drive from landing on the BCS National Championship green.
Tide fans who predicted an imminent return to glory feel vindicated—and the bandwagon is full. The sidewalk fans who meekly put away their Bama gear after last season’s loss to ULM have pulled it out of storage and are waving it for all to see.
Phrases like “rightful place,” “ahead of schedule,” and “return to domination” are being tossed around by a fanbase that unrealistically considers anything short of at least an SEC championship to be a down year. With its current run, Alabama set the bar, and it set the bar high.
Regardless of what happens over the final three games, the expectation among most fans has been set. Saban will bring them the national title(s) they crave, whether it happens this season and/or next.
But is the unexpected success this season a blessing or a curse?
While Alabama’s romp through the schedule cannot be ignored on the national scale and deserves merit, it’s also a matter of tremendous timing and luck. Alabama vaulted onto the national stage by drubbing Clemson, a preseason Top 10 pick.
Clemson is why you should never have preseason polls. Who knew the team would be a train wreck so disastrous that the Tigers would can head coach Tommy Bowden in midseason?
The Tide made its bones by throttling the preseason number one, Georgia. But the Bulldogs, too, have become a shell of their projected selves. Injury thinned the roster and hubris took the ‘Dogs down.
The LSU team that took Bama to overtime fielded one of the most inconsistent Tiger teams in five years and vomited up 50+ points to both Georgia and Florida. The Bengals also had a freshman quarterback contribute four interceptions, one returned for a score.
Other than that, Alabama doesn’t have a quality win on its schedule, nor does it have anything resembling a quality team remaining on the regular season roster.
Kentucky is mercurial and struggles on defense. Tennessee patched together the worst Volunteer team in 20 years, forcing longtime head coach Phillip Fulmer out the door. Ole Miss and Arkansas are talent-depleted and have new head coaches. Tulane, Western Carolina, and Arkansas State were freebies.
Mississippi State is dreadful. Archrival Auburn is mired in the throes of its worst season in a decade and struggling to find any identity at all on offense. The SEC gets national respect for its strength and balance, but by any measure this is an incredibly down year for the league.
Football is cyclical. Alabama is one of those teams that will eventually be “back” for a period of time. Much like Oklahoma, USC, Notre Dame, and other traditional powers of the '70s, it’s inevitable that the Tide will have times when they flirt with the glories past. But it’s unlikely that any team will ever reestablish the dominance Bama once exhibited.
The LSUs, Auburns, Floridas, Tennessees, and Georgias of the league have caught the Tide and in many ways surpassed it. Bama can’t be held down forever, but neither can other SEC programs.
Alabama last ran the season table 16 years ago. Since that time Alabama’s two biggest rivals, Auburn and Tennessee, have each had unbeaten records—Auburn twice.
Nick Saban has never coached an undefeated team. Even at LSU, where he won a national title, his teams were known for laying an egg in at least one game every season. His 2003 title run included a 19-7 home loss to an 8-5 Ron Zook-coached Florida team. His last season at LSU Saban went 9-3, losing badly to Georgia and dropping a bowl game to Iowa.
Saban offered harsh public criticism to fans who were unhappy with the result, citing unrealistic expectations and pressure created by the championship the year before. His displeasure with the demands of success was considered a contributing factor in his decision to leave LSU for Miami.
Will he be any happier deflecting fan ire in Tuscaloosa if future Tide teams fail to live up to the expectations set by this “ahead of schedule” season?
Former Auburn coach Terry Bowden knows something about setting unrealistic expectations. Bowden took an Auburn team on probation and promptly reeled off 20 straight wins. Bowden’s initial success set the standard impossibly high, and when production fell off, he was unable to live up to his own reputation.
Bowden went from SEC West Champion to fired in a matter of six games.
Former Alabama coach Mike Shula followed a 10-win campaign and “Bama’s back” momentum with a six-win probation-shackled season and earned himself a pink slip.
If Saban climbs the proverbial mountain and makes it to the BCS title game, or even if he doesn’t and just whets the appetite of the rabid Alabama fanbase, can he to live up to the monster he’s created and fed with this unexpected success? Will fans spoiled by an already established mental return to glory be sated by eight, nine, or 10-win seasons?
Given Saban’s already prickly personality, his disdain for the media, and some of his bizarre responses when Alabama suffered a subpar season in his initial campaign, the Tide’s amazing journey in 2008, while gratifying in the short run, could be a recipe for longer-term discontent. History says discontent and Saban are a volatile mix.