Commentary

Saban's surprising year of challenges

Originally Published: November 6, 2013
By Chris Low | ESPN.com

For a guy who's perpetually rumored to be on his way out at Alabama because he's thirsting for a new challenge, Nick Saban has one hell of a challenge right in front of him.

And to really know Saban is to know that his life is lived in that three-foot cubicle right in front of him.

What's right in front of him this season is perhaps the greatest coaching challenge of his career, certainly his greatest since he arrived at Alabama in 2007.

There have been landmines exploding around this program dating all the way back to last February, when three players were arrested and charged with beating up and robbing fellow students on campus. A fourth player was charged with fraudulent use of a credit card. All four were dismissed from the team.

It has been a constant drip of dreaded clutter for Saban ever since, from the Yahoo! Sports report that former offensive lineman D.J. Fluker received impermissible benefits from a runner during the 2012 season, to star safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix being suspended for two games after receiving a loan from an assistant strength coach, to the seemingly weekly stories that Saban is bound for Texas.

[+] EnlargeSaban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesDespite having the preseason No. 1 team, Nick Saban has spent a lot of time on off-field concerns, including discussion of the Texas job.

Regardless of what emails are out there or what's being reported, neither Saban, nor anybody in his camp, is plotting a move to Texas.

Based on numerous conversations with him, he fully intends to finish his coaching career at Alabama.

Granted, you never say never about anything, which leads to the obvious question: What would it take to get Saban out of Alabama?

The only scenario would be if there were major administrative changes at the top at Alabama that adversely affected Saban. Then again, given what he has meant to that university, is anybody really going to come in there and upset the apple cart?

Yes, Texas has deep pockets. But you can bet that Alabama would back up the Brink's truck to keep Saban in Tuscaloosa.

The long and short of it all: The chances of Saban bolting for Texas next season are about as good as Saban suddenly opening up a Twitter account.

Or even an Instagram account.

Nonetheless, he still has his work cut out if he's going to win a third straight national championship, which hasn't been done in the modern poll era.

The injuries have hurt, especially in the secondary with safety Vinnie Sunseri being out for the season and cornerback Deion Belue slowed early by a toe injury.

There also has been a bit of a maturity issue with this team, and while senior quarterback AJ McCarron is a strong leader, there's not a wealth of strong leaders throughout the locker room similar to past years.

Nobody's sleeping on Alabama's talent, because this is still a very talented football team. But whereas the Tide were on another planet the past four years in terms of talent (we're talking 29 NFL draft picks during that span), they're more on par with the other top teams in college football this season.

But where Saban has found the waters the choppiest with this team is keeping it motivated.

How many players on this team have ever lost a game that really hurt? You'd have to go back to the 2010 season. C.J. Mosley was around. So were McCarron and a few others for that 10-3 campaign that ended with a victory over Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl.

But the large majority of the players on this team have known only winning, more specifically winning championships, despite a November home loss in each of the past two seasons.

It's hard to coach a team like that, hard to manage it and hard to motivate it.

Often times, to truly appreciate what it takes to win at the highest level, you have to experience the pain of losing.

There are very few players on this team who've experienced that pain.

We'll find out a lot more about Alabama, starting Saturday when No. 13 LSU comes to town. There's also an Iron Bowl showdown looming with No. 9 Auburn on the Plains to end the regular season and then potentially the SEC championship game.

The truth is that the Tide haven't played anybody that had a prayer to beat them since Ole Miss at home back on Sept. 28, and that game ended in a 25-0 romp.

Without question, the defense has improved since giving up 42 points and 628 total yards to Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M the third week of the season. But some of that improvement is blurred when you go back and survey an October schedule that was the cushiest in the league.

The only team Alabama has played to this point that is currently ranked is Texas A&M. Five of the Tide's eight opponents own losing records.

The truth is we don't really know yet just how good this Alabama team is.

What we do know is that if it ends up where three of the past four have in early January, hoisting a crystal football, it will be Saban's crowning achievement in a career marked by crowning achievements ... and not with an eye cast toward the Lone Star State.

Chris Low | email

College Football

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