Alabama's next task? Continuing its BCS dynasty
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin stood on the sideline on Monday and watched the Crimson Tide defensive linemen warm up for the BCS title game. "See that guy?" Sumlin asked, pointing at Alabama defensive end Damion Square. "He's from Houston, Texas. Yates High." Sumlin's implication? In his Texas A&M regime, a player of Square's caliber shouldn't leave the Lone Star State to play for Alabama. He should play for Texas A&M, and Texas A&M should play on the season's final evening.
A few feet away stood Ohio State coach Urban Meyer. As Alabama center Barrett Jones sprinted past, Meyer pointed. "I almost had him," Meyer said of the Outland Trophy winner who finished his career with national titles as a starter at each of the three offensive line positions. Meyer didn't exaggerate. When Meyer coached Florida, Jones considered the Gators before eventually signing with the Crimson Tide.
Alabama cemented its dynasty status by crushing Notre Dame 42-14 on Monday to clinch its third national title in four seasons. It's no longer a question of which program can end the SEC's run atop college football, but which program can end Alabama's run. Just how many more years can coach Nick Saban keep the Tide rolling? Sumlin, Meyer and a select few coaches around the sport will work tirelessly to make sure the dynasty ends next year. But can they do it? Or is Saban's Process designed to keep Alabama reloading every season?
Before this month ends, Alabama's returning players will shuffle into the weight room and be greeted by a blond-haired ball of pure energy from Louisiana named Scott Cochran. Cochran began working for Saban at LSU, and while he is the hyperactive yin to Saban's stoic yang, Cochran perfectly understands Saban's insistence that players and coaches vanquish thoughts of the end result and pour all their energy into the most immediate task at hand. Cochran's immediate task? Identify the players who will replace Jones and linebacker Nico Johnson as team leaders. "They definitely keep learning from each other," Cochran said. "They learn from the guys who just led. You just have to help build it."
Leadership is key. The 2010-shaped hole in Alabama's dynasty exists because of a leadership void that season. If leaders don't emerge, it might be tough to three-peat even though Alabama has the necessary talent and the easiest possible SEC schedule draw. "It's special to be able to repeat," Alabama's Jones said. "It's harder than you guys realize just to be able to get everyone going again and working toward a common goal. It's hard to avoid complacency. It's probably one of the hardest things in football and just in life -- to learn how to manage success and to learn that when you have success, you've got to keep doing the things that got you there. You can't relax."
If Crimson Tide players relax for even a second, there are players in Columbus, College Station and Eugene eager to knock them from their perch. Meyer has beaten Saban in a conference title game (in 2008) and lost to him in a conference title game (in 2009). He knows what it takes to beat Alabama. He also understands just how difficult it is to beat Saban's teams. Meyer brings back quarterback Braxton Miller and a talented offense as well as some excellent back-seven defensive players. The Buckeyes will have to replace most of their defensive line, but if they improve in Year Two the way Meyer's former teams at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida did, they'll live next season near the top of the polls.
Sumlin, meanwhile, shows no fear of Alabama. His team beat the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa in November, and the Aggies get Alabama in College Station on Sept. 14. Texas A&M brings back Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel, who flummoxed the Crimson Tide's usually unflappable defense. (Before Texas A&M offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury left to take the head-coaching job at Texas Tech, someone else on the Aggies' staff had tacked a photo of Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart looking hopeless against Manziel to Kingsbury's office wall.) The biggest question for Texas A&M concerns two very big humans. Offensive tackles Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews are probable first-round picks if they enter the NFL draft. Joeckel, the left tackle, might be the top overall pick. At the moment, Matthews appears to be leaning toward coming back to College Station. Joeckel has a tougher decision to make.
Meanwhile, Chip Kelly's return to Oregon after a second flirtation with the NFL offers another worthy challenger. As a redshirt freshman, Marcus Mariota was already the best quarterback of the Kelly era. Mariota will be even better next year, and while the Ducks lose tailback Kenjon Barner, they bring back a host of playmakers. Plus, Kelly's return is a signal that even though the NCAA didn't accept Oregon's plea bargain and will force the Ducks to go before the Committee on Infractions in the Will Lyles case, the violations of which Oregon is accused aren't bad enough to necessitate Kelly leaving. Even if the COI slaps a bowl ban on the Ducks, they could ride the appeals process long enough to allow the 2013 team to compete for the national title if it proves itself worthy.
Those programs mentioned above know the task before them. And to hoist the crystal football, they'll probably have to topple Alabama. The Crimson Tide have set the standard absurdly high, but that should make players and coaches at other elite programs work that much harder to stop the juggernaut in Tuscaloosa. Still, if choosing between Alabama and the field, Alabama seems like a pretty safe bet because even the Tide's youngest players understand how much they must dedicate themselves this offseason if they hope to win a third consecutive national title and a fourth in five years.
"It's very important," freshman receiver Amari Cooper said, "if we want to be the greatest dynasty in college football."