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Is the beginning of the end of Nick Saban’s run at Alabama?

The Crimson Tide are looking extremely vulnerable after a close win over USF. Will Saban stick it out?

Alabama Crimson Tide Head Coach Nick Saban watches his team warm up before the College Football game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the South Florida Bulls on September 16, 2023 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, FL.
Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Alabama Crimson Tide fell to No. 13 in the college football rankings after a 17-3 win over a South Florida team they were projected to beat by more than 30 points. The final line at DraftKings Sportsbook had Alabama listed as a 34.5-point favorite, and the Tide did not come close to covering that line. In fact, they were tied 3-3 at halftime and didn’t score their first touchdown until just under five minutes left in the third quarter.

It’s just the second time since the 2015 season Alabama has dropped out of the top 10 in the polls. In the College Football Playoff era, one loss is usually enough to let the panic set in. Even though Alabama won against USF, the CFP committee likely views it as a loss. The Tide will have to run the table, and they’ll also need some style points.

Stranger things have happened and Alabama’s schedule sets up well for this type of recovery. Everything starts with No. 15 Ole Miss visiting Tuscaloosa in Week 4, bringing another former Nick Saban assistant in front of the Tide in Lane Kiffin. Tennessee and LSU are also waiting. If the Tide do run the table, they would likely face Georgia in the SEC title game. The Bulldogs, who are two-time defending champions, would likely carry a No. 1 ranking in that game. If the Tide pull off the upset there, it would be impossible for the committee to ignore a one-loss SEC champion for the playoff.

However, the cracks in the Alabama dynasty fans are used to cheering for are starting to appear. Saban signed a contract extension in 2021 which runs through the 2028 season, but he is 71. The grind of recruiting top talent in the NIL era has to be wearing on him. Alabama did have the top recruiting class in 2023 per 247, but is behind Georgia, Ohio State and Florida in the 2024 rankings at the moment. The competition is only going to become more fierce.

On top of that increased competition, Alabama is struggling at the most important position on the field. The Tide have rarely had top-tier quarterbacks under Saban, so in theory this shouldn’t hinder them. However, it does matter when their opponents do have those top-tier guys. Quinn Ewers’ injury in last season’s game against Texas clearly would’ve made a difference, as he showed in this season’s win over Alabama. Saban is having trouble deciding whether Jalen Milroe, Tyler Buchner or Ty Simpson is the guy this year. That’s a bad sign as SEC play starts.

We also have the players-only meeting after USF. There are very few college football programs that hold these type of meetings each year, and they almost never include Alabama. It’s not uncommon for a big-time school to hold these after massive rivalry games, but to hold one after the USF game? Everything reportedly went well, but we’ll see if that’s the case against Ole Miss. Kiffin’s squad is unbeaten heading into this game, and the Rebels have a quarterback in Jaxson Dart who can pick apart this defense if given time.

The Tide have made every College Football Playoff outside of 2019 and 2022. Both times, we got some classic Saban TV appearances where he pushed for Alabama to be in. The Tide have made the championship game five times, winning three. Saban clearly cares about winning, and Alabama expects to win. The home loss to Texas and sloppy win over USF is unfamiliar territory for this program.

The path to the playoff, as unlikely as it is, still exists. Crazier things have happened in college football. This is Nick Saban and this is Alabama. The Tide don’t have any margin for error, but that might be the best thing for them.

Everything hinges on Saturday’s game against Ole Miss. This will either be another step towards Saban’s exit from the program, or a clear warning shot to the rest of the country Alabama isn’t going anywhere any time soon.