The vexing question among Alabama fans since the hangover cleared the air from January 7th has undeniably been, "Can Alabama repeat in 2010?" So, what say you, OTS? The short answer is that, yes, it's certainly possible, but realistically the odds of actually doing it are very, very long.
From the outset, a splash of cold water to the face: 2009 was the mountain top, as I've previously written, and undefeated seasons in the torturous gauntlet that is the modern day SEC are exceptionally rare. I don't care how good your coach is, or how well you have recruited, or have much quality depth you have, chances are that someone is going to get you along the way. The mixture of a fourteen game schedule with a brutal slew of opponents, restrictions on roster size, injuries, and random luck almost always proves to be too much for even the best of the best. Prior to the Tide's 2009 run, the SEC turned out four national champions in this past decade, but not a single one of those teams was able to emerge from the conference slate unscathed, which is to say nothing of the 2001 Tennessee team that was knocked out of the BCS Championship Game after being upset in Atlanta by LSU.
Moreover, each season is the effective dawn of a new day. Some people like to believe in the notion that you can take the previous season as a baseline and then add or subtract from it based on the offseason attrition of the teams in question, but in reality things are far more complicated than that simplistic analysis ever envisions. Simply put, each year is different. The teams are different, the players are different, the location of the games is different, the coaches are often different, and the strategies employed by the teams often change as well. Again, it's a new day, and the harsh truth of the matter is that it is largely irrelevant as to who went 14-0 last year when two teams line up to do battle one year removed.
On a broader note, history ought to tell the tale. Twelve BCS championship games have been played to date, but no team has been able to pull off the back-to-back feat, and most teams cannot even fight their way back for another appearance. Going back further, only once in the past two decades has a program won back-to-back national championships. 'Bama probably won't be able to reverse those trends in 2010.
More specifically, looking ahead a couple of months to the 2010 season, it's hard not to see the potential pitfalls for Alabama. The schedule is once again brutal, featuring a major non-conference showdown against Penn State to go along with Florida, Auburn, and Ole Miss, plus road trips to play Duke, Arkansas, Tennessee, South Carolina, and LSU. And then, even if all that works out, you still have Florida a third year in a row in Atlanta. Pretty much everyone on the schedule gets an off week to rest and prepare for the Tide. The defensive secondary is short on proven commodities and depth. The kicking game could be the least productive we've seen in many years in Tuscaloosa (and that is saying something). The offense returns with the entire unit almost intact, but all of that retention is balanced by the certainty that the offense will have to play at a much higher level and do so on a more consistent basis than it did in 2009 for the Tide to make the trip to Glendale. Bottom line, it does not take a once-in-a-generation football mind to figure how the Tide may come up short in its bid to repeat.
Furthermore, speaking strictly in terms of the chances of Alabama repeating as national champions in 2010, Alabama faces a more fundamental problem than anything written above. Consider the following. BetUS is one of the major betting houses that offers a comprehensive rundown of NCAA Football odds, and last year their pre-season odds for winning the 2009 national championship went roughly as follows:
Ohio State: 9/1
Consider those numbers for a moment, particularly Florida. Remember, 2008 Florida was -- despite a mystifying loss to Ole Miss -- undoubtedly one of the most dominant teams in the modern history of college football, and moving forward to 2009 practically everyone returned. As guaranteed locks to win a national championship go, Florida was the most definite, sure-fire repeat contender we've seen in many, many years. Yet, per the betting class, there was almost as good of a chance for them to lose out in 2009 as there was for them to repeat. And, of course, when all was said and done they indeed did lose out on their bid to repeat. And moving on past Florida, as you can see, the odds of any one team winning the national championship were very small, even for the prohibitive "favorites." With that as a specific example, the broader truth of the matter is that, regardless of how good you are, the odds of any one individual team winning a national championship in any given year are low. And that goes for Alabama in 2010, even with Nick Saban and Mark Ingram and whatever other factor you can reel off.
With all of that established, however, the one redeeming feature that Alabama may find in 2010 is that, unlike 2009, the rest of the college football landscape seems much more bearish. What should be kept in mind regarding the 2009 national championship is that -- and this is, in many ways, what makes it so truly special -- complete and total perfection was a pre-requisite to even getting to Pasadena in the first place, much less winning when you arrived there, and Alabama was forced to do so against a brutal schedule. Not only did Alabama have to go undefeated in the regular season at a time when the SEC was at its apogee as the undeniable superpower conference, they had to beat the seemingly unstoppable Gators in Atlanta, which was led the senior Mr. Everything quarterback, who many felt to be the greatest player in the history of college football. And then when the Tide made it through Atlanta, they had to beat another undefeated team in the Rose Bowl, a traditional powerhouse that it had never beaten before. In other words, in terms of the favorability of conditions for a potential national championship run, 2009 was effectively the worst-case scenario in almost every aspect imaginable. Consider 2009 the football equivalent of trying to safely land a B-52 in total darkness during the middle of blizzard of legendary proportion.
Moving forward into 2010, though, the margin of error seems greater. Florida loses even more in 2010 than does Alabama, plus they have questions surrounding their head coach. Tennessee, Georgia, and Auburn will not be ready to compete for a national championship, and LSU will have to take a major step forward over the past two years if they plan to do so. The Big Ten is, well, the Big Ten, and only Ohio State seems to be a legitimate contender. Oklahoma and Texas will be in the thick of things, but they must replace key pieces and no one else seems ready to step up in the Big XII. USC is banned from bowl games, and the remaining Pac-9 features a Big East / ACC-esque lineup of squads -- with no real chance of anyone from those three conferences making the championship game. Admittedly, a team like Boise or Utah could spike the proverbial punch bowl, but even taking them into consideration 2010 seems ripe for a team with one loss (or perhaps two?) to find its way into the BCS Championship Game, and if Alabama can somehow emerge from the SEC fight as the conference champion -- even if the Tide does so scathed and somewhat beaten at 12-1 or perhaps even 11-2 -- then Alabama may very well be able to finagle that into a trip to Glendale. Given the SEC's status as the premiere conference in the sport, the smart money would clearly be on the SEC champion being the representative if indeed a team with a loss on its resume can make it in.
Even so, more likely than not it will not happen. Accept that as a reality and move on with it. We'll probably lose at least once in 2010, perhaps even more, and we likely won't repeat as national championship. It could happen, sure, but the odds are clearly against it. We've got issues in our own right, and the schedule looks more and more daunting with each passing glance. Simple enough.
But that somewhat sour note shouldn't be dwelled on for too long. While Alabama faces long odds on the road to a repeat national championship, the truth remains that as a whole Alabama should still be very good and will undoubtedly win a lot of football games. Even with some bad luck the bottom end for Alabama in 2010 is likely around 8-4 -- not bad for those of us who still vividly remember things like this -- and the smart money is clearly on Alabama getting north of ten wins for the third year in a row, finishing in the top ten, notching more wins over Tennessee and Auburn, and likely having a better chance of winning the SEC than any other conference member. And, beyond 2010, Alabama moves forward with a mixture of coaching, depth, recruiting prowess, facilities, and administrative support that would make almost any other program in the country turn green with envy. It is that, and not whether or not Alabama can repeat as national champions, which everyone should be focused on as Alabama moves onto a new season.