Nick Saban, Alabama face unfamiliar underdog position as they chase Georgia

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Nick and Terry Saban were married 52 years ago this December. It wasn’t until this summer, however, that they got around to celebrating their 50th anniversary with a trip to Italy that some friends purchased as a gift.

The reason it took so long?

The Alabama football coach wouldn’t go.

“I successfully got out of [it] for two years,” Saban said. “Failed to be able to get out of it this year. Didn’t really want to go.”

There are many stories of Saban’s maniacal focus and relentless and repeated pursuit of perfection — and national championships. This is but the latest. It’s a doozy, though. The man will travel anywhere to recruit an edge rusher. Sunset at the Spanish Steps, on the other hand, even if it’s a gift in honor of his beloved Miss Terry?

It turns out Saban enjoyed himself and even shared some details Wednesday during SEC media days. He vouched for the country, nearly acting like it was some little known vacation spot.

“It was a fabulous time,” he said. “Fabulous. And I would recommend anybody do it. Lots of good culture, great architecture, art. A lot of good things to see.”

Cue the new tourism slogan. Italy: A lot of good things to see.

Saban is now, again, fully focused on his football team and entering a season with a new challenge, or at least a new perspective on things.

Nick Saban and his Alabama Crimson Tide have been the class of college football for the better part of 15 years. But Georgia is challenging Alabama's status at the top. (Photo by Johnnie Izquierdo/Getty Images)
Nick Saban and his Alabama Crimson Tide have been the class of college football for the better part of 15 years. But Georgia is challenging Alabama’s status at the top. (Photo by Johnnie Izquierdo/Getty Images)

Alabama hasn’t won every game since he arrived in 2007, although he is 187-21 the last 15 seasons. And other SEC teams have won national titles during that stretch. Yet for every time an LSU or an Auburn or a Florida has stepped up, it felt like a temporary thing. The Tide were going to roll again. There was no debate about who the top dog was.

Nick Saban. Always.

Then came Kirby Smart and Georgia. On the field, Saban is 6-1 against the Bulldogs, but that lone loss came in the national championship game two seasons ago. Georgia went on to win the title again last season and enters this season as the favorite to three-peat, something Saban has never done.

Smart has won 33 of his last 34 games and even pushed the Tide off the top of the national recruiting rankings for the class of 2022 (and he’ll likely sign the best group for the class of 2024).

At 47 years old, Smart isn’t going anywhere either. As a former Saban assistant, he’s basically duplicated the Alabama process in Athens and added a few of his own twists.

Entering the 2023 campaign, it is extremely fair to say Georgia has reached Alabama’s level as a full-on “program.” Some have even argued that the Bulldogs have passed the Tide, although the Alabama players weren’t going for that.

“Everybody has the freedom of speech,” linebacker Dallas Turner said with a shrug.

“I respect the fact they have won back to back,” offensive lineman JC Latham said. “At the same time, their standard is great but I don’t believe it’s above our standard.”

Which doesn’t mean Latham and others haven’t taken note of Georgia’s success.

“Just seeing them take the stage and take the opportunity that we knew was up for grabs, that we could have taken, just fuel to the fire,” Latham said.

Whether any of this bothers Saban is unknown. He likes to talk about constant development and improvement, and then let the victories and trophies follow. He hates to lose though, which isn’t quite the same as hating to not win, but it’s close.

“I never look back at the past,” he said. “It’s always about the future. Most of the things that I remember about the past are the games we didn’t win, the national championship games that we lost, the games that we lost a year ago on the last play of the game, and how that impacted our chances to have a successful season and accomplish the goals that the players wanted to accomplish and how we could have impacted that in a more positive way.

“So I’m always looking for a better way,” he continued. “And always looking at what can we do to be better, and that’s what we continue to try to focus on in the future. And that’s a challenge that we have with every team and this team will be no different.”

Georgia head Coach Kirby Smart celebrates a national championship victory over Alabama on Jan. 10, 2022. The Bulldogs went on to win a second straight title the following year. (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images)

Georgia head Coach Kirby Smart celebrates a national championship victory over Alabama on Jan. 10, 2022. The Bulldogs went on to win a second straight title the following year. (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images)

The team is deep and it is talented. What it lacks in experience it makes up for in NFL potential, especially in the trenches. Bama’s recruiting remains elite. There was a time when Alabama struggled with elite quarterback play and won anyway. Now they’ve seen a string of future NFL starters come through — Jalen Hurts, Tua Tagovailoa, Mac Jones and Bryce Young.

This year, no one knows who will be QB1 and, even more than the rise of Georgia, it’s causing the most consternation among fans.

“So we have three guys that are competing for that position right now,” he said “ … I don’t think anybody has actually separated themselves yet. And I don’t think it’s something that we are trying to rush.

“Grandma Saban used to bake the best cakes in the world,” Saban continued. “And I used to stand by the oven when I was a kid and say, ‘When is this cake going to be done? When is this cake going to be done?’ She said, ‘If I don’t let it go through and take it out of the oven too soon, it will turn to mush and it won’t be a really good cake.’

“So I think we have to sort of let this develop and make sure we let the cake bake.”

Saban pleading patience. Saban taking Italian holidays. Saban challenged in a way he’s rarely been challenged.

Big season ahead with potentially a lot of good things to see.