Is Alabama no longer the gold standard in college football?

HOOVER, Ala. — Alabama football losses are rare. Beatdown losses are rarer still. So when it happens — in the national championship game, of all times — it becomes a six-month topic of conversation.

This is why Nick Saban spent a significant portion of his Wednesday appearance at Southeastern Conference media days discussing the fallout from Clemson 44, Alabama 16. Nobody has forgotten what happened on that shocking night in Santa Clara, California last January.

The ongoing autopsy took a surprising turn after Saban’s podium appearance here. When he went on the SEC Network with Paul Finebaum, he laid specific blame on his assistant coaches. This was the exchange between the two:

“When the season started, I think we were great,” Saban said. “When we won the LSU game [in November], it just seemed like people’s own agendas started to become more important.”

“Coaches or players?” Finebaum asked.

“Coaching,” Saban responded. “We had a lot of guys who wanted to be head coaches at different places. It takes a special person to stay focused on what they have to do now when they have a job somewhere else that’s awaiting them and they have a responsibility on staffs.

“I’m not being critical of those people. It’s just very challenging. And we had a lot of that on our staff last year.”

Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban looks on during the team's spring game at Bryant-Denny Stadium on April 13, 2019. (Getty)

Well then. Are the ears of Mike Locksley (now head coach at Maryland), Josh Gattis (offensive coordinator at Michigan), Tosh Lupoi (defensive line coach for the Cleveland Browns), Dan Enos (offensive coordinator at Miami) and Brent Key (offensive line coach at Georgia Tech) burning? Those were the departures from the 2018 staff, part of the annual turnover that has become a hallmark of recent Alabama teams.

In previous years, Saban has cited focus issues for players, related to the NFL draft, as one of the challenges of postseason preparation. Turns out staffers are not immune to similar distractions.

For a decade, the roster and staff churn at Alabama has always been survivable. Players flocked to the NFL draft, coaches came and went, and the dynasty rolled on. Being impervious to that turnover is probably the single most impressive part of the Saban Era.

But there was grumbling during and after the 2018 season that Saban had constructed a staff that was long on recruiting ability but shorter than usual on actual coaching. The Tide was flush with talent, as always, but some suspected they were less adept at calling plays or constructing gameplans than the best Saban staffs. Add the wandering job eye to the equation and a seemingly bulletproof Bama team was vulnerable by season’s end.

The Crimson Tide defense, never a vintage Saban unit, surrendered escalating points and yards over the final five games of the year: 17 points and 275 yards to Citadel; 21 and 283 to Auburn; 28 and 454 to Georgia; 34 and 471 to Oklahoma; and 44 and 482 to Clemson. Penalty yardage increased. And then there were the turnovers.

After having a plus-11 turnover margin through nine games, ’Bama was minus-5 over the last six. From September 2015 through November 2018, the Tide had 53 consecutive games never being worse than minus-1 in turnover margin — then it was minus-2 against both Georgia and Clemson.

Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa scrambles during the first half of the national championship game against Clemson. (AP)

A sloppy, unfocused Alabama team met a buttoned-up Clemson squad. We all saw what happened. And we’re still talking about it.

“Spending time around the facility, it felt like a team that was so incredibly special,” said ESPN analyst and former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy. “But as you dug a little deeper, you’d say, ‘Maybe they could do that a little better,’ or ‘There’s one area that isn’t quite operating at the same level.’ You always trusted they could get there … and then for Clemson to come out and be the better team, to be so superior in so many areas, was eye-opening for a lot of people.

“That was the first time in a really long time I could say, they just got beat by better personnel. I would imagine for them, they have now recognized that they can’t just show up and assume they’re the best team on the field. That’s humbling, but it creates a certain level of hunger.”

Hunger, sure, but there also was no inclination from the ’Bama players here to bow down to their new Clemson overlords. Specifically, linebacker Dylan Moses wasn’t buying any premise that the Tigers are the new gold standard in the sport.

“Honestly, I really do think Clemson is a great program,” Moses said. “But there will never be another Alabama.”

As for the game itself: “It was more preparation. I wouldn’t say they were a better team.”

So, six months later, acceptance of what happened seems to still be a work in progress for the Tide. And the SEC office. On page 51 of the league’s media guide, it lists Alabama’s 2018 record as “14-0.” As if that last game never really happened.

But while Alabama and the South may not be fully acknowledging the reality and totality of its defeat at the hands of Clemson, there is a clear realization that some intangibles need to improve from 2018 to 2019.

“The key to us, the key to our success, is: Can we internally re-establish the standard of what we need to do to be the best team that we can be?” Saban said. “And that's got to be something that's done on a consistent basis, and it has to be able to sustain the season. And that's a challenge for all of us.”

A beating that wasn't attributable to a missed kick, a questionable flag or a tipped ball will stick with a program that isn't used to being dominated.

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