Ranked No. 1 again, Alabama's Nick Saban doesn't seem to be slowing down at 70 | Opinion

It’s hard to know what might sway Nick Saban to retire. But what seems clear is that Alabama isn’t close to done controlling the narrative in college football.

Dan Wolken
USA TODAY

You would not be able to tell that Nick Saban is about to turn 71 this Halloween. He looks a decade younger, he still runs onto the football field with the same vigor he had before doctors replaced his hip a couple years back and there is no evidence that he plans on walking away anytime soon.

Alabama, in fact, is actively taking commitments from blue-chip recruits who won’t even enroll until 2024, which would put Saban several steps closer to 80 by the time they’re eligible for the NFL draft.

It’s hard to know what might ultimately sway Saban to call it a career, or when he will be physically unable to do the job at the highest level. But what seems abundantly clear is that Alabama isn’t even close to done controlling the narrative in college football. 

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There’s no surprise that Alabama enters the 2022 season as the No. 1 team in the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll. After falling to Georgia in the College Football Playoff championship seven months ago — a game Alabama led early in the fourth quarter — no team in the country brings back more established talent. Perhaps just as importantly, no team in the country has a stronger motivational pull toward greatness than coming up just short in the game that matters most. 

Nick Saban, who turns 71 on Halloween, is leading another Alabama charge to a potential championship.

Saban has even referred to 2021 as a “rebuilding year,” which isn’t far off considering how young the Crimson Tide was at so many key positions. There were several weeks when Alabama played so sloppy and loose that Saban seemed far more amused than infuriated about the roller coaster ride they took him on. 

But now, the empire is poised to strike back. And Saban’s swagger is showing. 

“Well, I don't like to compare players, but to have two players that make such a significant impact on our team as those two guys, I don't recall ever having a circumstance like that,” Saban said, referring to quarterback Bryce Young and linebacker Will Anderson. “We've had some great impact players, but never one on offense, one on defense, of the caliber that these guys have been able to play on a consistent basis.”

What more do you need to hear?

Having the best offensive player and the best defensive player in college football doesn’t guarantee a national championship. Alabama could get tripped up by injury, by team chemistry issues, by playing one bad game at the wrong time. With a four-team playoff, the margin for error is fairly small — even for Alabama.

But it’s rare for a team to head into a season as big of a favorite as Alabama, earning 54 of the 66 first-place votes among the coaches. Even in other years where Alabama is the consensus preseason No. 1, there’s usually another team or two that could plausibly challenge for the title. 

This time, though, it truly looks like the Crimson Tide vs. the field — which is a pretty amazing thing to say at the 16-year mark of the greatest run in college football history.

Saban stayed relevant among major changes

In 2010, Pete Carroll published “Win Forever: Live, Work and Play Like a Champion,” a book based on his remarkable run at Southern California. But even the Trojans didn’t actually win forever. After seven consecutive years finishing in the top four of the coaches’ poll, including one BCS national title, the program started to fray at the edges from scandal, from arrogance, perhaps even from fatigue. After one mediocre 9-4 season, Carroll left for the NFL.

That’s the natural progression of college football. Great runs usually last six, maybe seven years. Then the rest of the sport catches up. A key assistant or two leaves. People in the organization just get plain worn down and need a fresh start. 

It certainly could have played out that way for Saban after seven years at Alabama. He had already won three national championships and didn’t have anything left to prove. He’d never stayed in any coaching job longer than five years. And in 2013, after losing to Auburn in the famous “Kick Six” game, it would have been a natural time for Saban to pull the rip cord and find something else to do.

In fact, John Talty of AL.com reports in a new book “The Leadership Secrets of Nick Saban,” that he seriously considered a transition to ESPN’s “College GameDay" after that season. Though it’s unclear how real Saban’s interest was, there’s some evidence that he also considered replacing Mack Brown at Texas.

It seems ridiculous in hindsight now that Saban has added three more titles and is poised to keep this thing going for the foreseeable future, but it wasn’t unthinkable at the time. Teams like Auburn and Ole Miss that introduced up tempo spread offenses to the SEC were giving Saban fits. Jimbo Fisher had brought back the glory days at Florida State. Urban Meyer was about to get things going again at Ohio State. The College Football Playoff was coming, which was theoretically going to make it more difficult to collect championships. Maybe it was just the right moment to go.

Instead, Saban stayed, re-tooled the program and positioned it for a ridiculous run that stands apart from every other dynasty college football has ever seen. Meanwhile, Meyer burned hot and petered out, Fisher couldn’t maintain things in Tallahassee and jumped to Texas A&M, Clemson pulled even for a few years before showing some strain and LSU receded as quickly as it surged under Ed Orgeron.

Now it’s Georgia’s turn. A quarter-century younger than his mentor, Kirby Smart copied pretty much every page of the Alabama blueprint and finally cashed in on a national championship last year. On paper, it’s the most sustainable and formidable challenger we’ve seen to another decade of Saban dominance. The only thing for sure is that Saban won’t just hand the baton to Georgia; the Bulldogs  are going to have to take it. 

Even in the most optimistic scenario when he decided to take the Alabama job all those years ago, nobody would have expected Saban to still be fighting off one more rival, still talking about rebuilding years and revenge. As he begins this run toward another national championship, though, putting a date on his coaching horizon seems more impossible than ever. 

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken