Tuscaloosa, AL—On an uncomfortably cold Monday evening a couple of hundred hearty members of the Tuscaloosa Red Elephant Club gathered in an entertainment area enclosed in the North end zone of Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Exactly one week ago most of them sat in Levi’s Stadium in California and watched in disbelief as No. 1 Alabama was dominated 44-16 by No. 2 Clemson in the national championship game of the College Football Playoff. The loss denied the Crimson Tide and its legendary fans a sixth national championship in the past 10 years.
In 2016 in Tampa, Alabama lost the national championship game to Clemson with exactly one second left on the clock. That one really hurt.
This one hurt, too, but in a different way. To paraphrase what a number of club members told me:
“Ain’t a whole lot to say when you get beat the way we did.”
But they weren’t there to mourn. Instead they came to break bread, commiserate, and trade stories about their respective trips to the West Coast.
And before the night was over they had collectively raised a toast to a 14-1 season, where Alabama won yet another SEC championship and made its fifth straight trip to the CFP—the only school has accomplished that. Before they ventured back into the cold Alabama night, they had turned the page to 2019.
Now this doesn’t mean that there aren’t concerns among the fan base. In fact, there are several:
**--Since the national championship game seven—that’s right seven—underclassmen have chosen to leave school and enter their names into the NFL Draft. That’s the most in the Nick Saban era (2007-Present). Juniors leaving Alabama early is a measuring stick of the talent of the program and is a significant point on the recruiting trail. But a lot of talent (7 juniors, 11 seniors) from the two-deep is walking out the door.
**--Alabama’s entire offensive staff is gone. Specifically:
OC Mike Locksley is the new head coach at Maryland.
Quarterbacks Coach Dan Enos, who many thought would replace Locksley, instead chose to take the OC job at Miami.
Offensive line coach Brent Key returned to Georgia Tech, his alma mater.
Wide receivers coach Josh Gattis is now the offensive coordinator at Michigan.
**--Monday night there were published reports that Steve Sarkisian, who was elevated to replace Lane Kiffin for the 2016 national championship game only to bolt for the Atlanta Falcons after it was over, would be returning to Alabama as OC. A number of fans were scratching their heads on that one.
So for the second straight year Saban will have to do a major overhaul of his coaching staff, which had six new faces going into the 2018 season. And a number of the Red Elephant Club members wondered privately if all of that change had finally caught up to Saban and the Alabama program.
This is in contrast to the ultra-stability of Dabo Swinney’s coaching staff at Clemson. Clemson has had the same coordinators (DC Brent Venables, OCs Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott) for the past four seasons.
In the 12 years I’ve covered Saban at Alabama, I’ve never heard the phrase: “We got out-coached.” Monday night I did.
But let’s be clear on this. Alabama fans may have questions, but they know that the guy with the answers, Nick Saban, is arguably the greatest coach in the history of the sport. They know that Saban focuses like a laser when he wins, but that focus becomes white hot after a season ends on a loss.
Here is a point made to me time and time again. While the Alabama fans fully admit that the Crimson Tide lost to a superior and better-prepared team on Jan. 7 in Santa Clara, this idea that the game marked the passing of the torch to college football’s next dynasty—the Clemson Tigers—is just a little premature. Some used stronger words to make that point.
Last December Alabama again signed the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class according to ESPN’s rankings. That means that Saban’s last four recruiting classes have been ranked 1, 1, 6, and 1. That doesn’t sound like a football team that is going quietly into the night.
Regardless who who the offensive coordinator turns out to be, he'll welcome the return of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and the most talented set of wide receivers Alabama has ever had. A couple of holes have to be filled on the offensive line but since when has that been a problem for Alabama? The back end of the defense was too young and got exposed by Clemson. Saban coaches the defensive backs. Despite a couple of losses (Deionte Thompson, Saivion Smith) they will be better.
Here’s a prediction I feel good about: When the preseason polls are released in August, Clemson will be No. 1 and Alabama will be No. 2. When SEC Media Days roll around in July, the media will pick Alabama to win the West and Georgia to win the East.
Get the point?
“The last four years we (Alabama and Clemson) are both 55-4, we’ve both won two national championships and we’re 2-2 against each other,” one gentleman told me. “We’re not going anywhere.”