It’s been three calendar years since Nick Saban last hoisted a national title trophy, the two seasons in between matching the maximum wait that Alabama fans have had to endure in the Saban era. Spoiled we are, but while Alabama is back in the College Football Playoff, they aren’t necessarily favored to win it this time. The Tide’s semifinal opponent, Michigan, has been installed as a slight betting favorite from the jump and that hasn’t changed. Should the Tide survive Michigan, they will face either a Texas team that took Alabama down in Tuscaloosa early in the season, or a Washington squad that will have beaten Texas.
For an Alabama team that has its flaws, the sledding is going to be tough.
Still, it’s far from inconceivable that this Alabama team will be the one left standing in the end. Here are some keys to Nick Saban winning his record 8th national title.
#1 - Alabama’s behemoth lines control the games
Saban’s adaptability to stay ahead of the college football curve has been perhaps his most remarkable trait, and this year is no exception. Years after consciously shifting toward lighter defenders in the front seven in effort to combat fastball, spread offenses, he saw a trend shift back toward running the football in recent seasons. In turn, the Alabama roster added substantial weight in the offseason.
On the offensive side, Alabama’s line famously (infamously?) averages well over 330 lb. per man, including a left side pair in Kadyn Proctor and Tyler Booker who tip the scales at more than 700 between them. Returns weren’t great early in the season, and Proctor still struggles at times with the speed rush, but late in the season they were far more effective leaning on defenses. Michigan boasts more girth up front on defense than most, so this will be a battle to watch.
Defensively, Saban has added about 60 lbs. total to his line compared to recent seasons, headlined by Jaheim Oatis and Tim Keenan III. Both men are listed in the 330s on the roster, but nobody believes that they are quite that svelte. This will be something of an adjustment for Michigan. For some reference, the two-deeps of Ohio State and Iowa have exactly one DL between them that weighs in at over 300 lbs. If Keenan and Oatis are able to keep the linebackers clean, that will go a long way toward shutting down the Michigan run game.
#2 - Dallas Turner and Chris Braswell lead the way
If there is one area of the Rose Bowl that looks like a clear mismatch in favor of Alabama, it’s edge rushers Dallas Turner and Chris Braswell against suspect offensive tackles for the Wolverines. Watching tape of the past couple of Michigan games, you see plenty of moving pockets and short, quick passes meant to mask this relative weakness.
Saban’s philosophy against mobile QBs who like to get the ball out quickly, like Michigan’s JJ McCarthy, has been to collapse the pocket around him and get the big mitts up to take away passing lanes. If Alabama’s defense is successful in the Rose Bowl, expect to see a few batted balls. Should the Tide advance, both Texas and Washington are known for picking defenses apart with the quick game as well.
The key, of course, will be to keep offenses in third and long so that Turner and Braswell have the opportunity to get after the passer. It’s tough to imagine an Alabama national title without some huge plays from those two.
#3 - Alabama’s secondary lives up to its billing
Kool Aid McKinstry and Terrion Arnold have both received plenty of first round hype this season, as expected for a couple of former five stars in year three. In the slot, senior Malachi Moore has been a revelation this season replacing the departed Brian Branch, and at safety UAB transfer Jaylen Key has been solid next to budding superstar Caleb Downs.
Combined with Alabama’s pass rush, this group has made it tough to pass the ball in recent weeks. Every team in the playoffs has outstanding playmakers outside, so they will be tested.
#4 - Jalen Milroe takes another step
Back in 2015, Alabama had a similar calamity at QB early in the season. Jake Coker started the first two games and was quite uneven, then was benched to open week three vs Ole Miss. Coker ended up coming off the bench but Alabama took an ugly loss that had college football media shoveling dirt on the Saban dynasty. Of course, Alabama would win out and bring home a title, and a dominant Coker looked like a totally different player in January.
For all the world, the quarterback position resembled a fatal flaw early this season. Jalen Milroe made some plays against Texas, but threw two critical interceptions to provide the margin of victory for the ‘Horns. Since the bye week, however, he has morphed into a main reason that Alabama can win a title. If he makes a Coker-like leap as a passer for these last two games, you can probably go ahead and engrave the trophy. That’s far from guaranteed, however, and if the turnover issues return, the Tide will likely go home empty handed.
#5 - Nick Saban puts on another masterclass
You don’t win seven national championships as a coach without phenomenal preparation, and nobody in the game has been better at bowl prep than Nick Saban. In the playoff era, Alabama is 6-1 in the semifinals and 9-4 overall. Should Alabama win another title, you can bet that much of the credit will have to go to the coaching staff for an undoubtedly grueling amount of work that Nick has required of them.
In summary, things will have to click for Alabama to bring home yet another trophy, but that’s always the case when playing the best teams in the nation. What are your keys to another title for Nick Saban and company?