ATLANTA — There are systems in college football that create stars, but at Alabama, the stars mostly blend into a championship-winning machine. As the Crimson Tide hone in on a potential fifth national title under Nick Saban, however, the team he’s bringing to Mercedes-Benz Stadium will stand completely apart from the rest if it can beat Georgia on Monday night.
Unlike every other group Saban has churned through his program during a decadelong reign over college football, this one is utterly void of individual superstars. Even for Alabama standards, this team has remained largely unremarkable in establishing a distinct area of dominance or identity of how it wants to play. In essence, if Saban can win a championship with this team, what more evidence would we need that The Process has been perfected?
Obviously, there’s still one more chapter to go. But let’s say that Alabama wins Saban’s sixth overall championship, tying him with Bear Bryant. If that happens, it’s worth asking: What will fans remember about this season?
If you’re having trouble coming up with something that distinguishes this season from all the others, you’re not alone. Even by his standards, this has been Saban at his faceless, personality-less, Process-y best, which isn’t a knock but rather something to marvel at.
Those who dislike or are simply bored with Alabama talk all the time about how the program intentionally lacks basic human characteristics and individuality, but sometimes that’s more hyperbole than reality.
Saban has had plenty of teams that were terrific across the board, but every year there have been one or two must-watch stars who have transcended The Process.
This year, though? It’s the real deal.
“It’s a good collective group,” said former Alabama quarterback and SEC Network analyst Greg McElroy said. “They play well together. There will probably be as many first-rounders on this team as some of the others, but maybe they aren’t the same level of household names. That’s a very fair thing to say.”
Think about 2009, when Saban won his first title. That was a team with Mark Ingram, who won the Heisman Trophy, and Julio Jones, who was a star from the minute he stepped on campus until he got drafted No. 6 overall by the Falcons.
Or consider 2011 and what many consider to be the best defense of all time to go along with Trent Richardson carrying the ball 283 times. When Alabama repeated in 2012, Eddie Lacy was something of a phenomenon along with an emerging freshman named Amari Cooper, who remained one of the most dangerous individual players in college football for the next two years. And when Alabama won the title in 2015, Derrick Henry seemed like something from another planet, averaging a mind-blowing 26 carries per game while physically overwhelming SEC defenders.
Even the last few years, Alabama has made stars out of its defensive players with the likes of Jonathan Allen getting Heisman votes and scoring multiple touchdowns.
The closest thing this Alabama team has is probably defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, who might be the best Saban has ever coached. But the impact of a versatile safety who plays corner when called upon isn’t something that usually pops off the screen. While scouts and connoisseurs of defensive football appreciate him, Fitzpatrick has one interception this season and 55 tackles — not exactly the kind of stuff that transcends the game.
“If Jimmy Kimmel called Alabama and said, ‘Hey, we want to interview somebody before the game,’ you’d probably say it would be Minkah, Jalen [Hurts] or maybe Damien Harris,” said Paul Finebaum, whose sense for what moves the needle in the SEC has made him an ESPN star. “There’s no question about it. It’s not a vintage Alabama team.”
And yet, winning a title with this team — the not a vintage Alabama team — would perhaps be the biggest middle finger of all to the rest of college football. Oklahoma couldn’t win it with a once-in-a-generation quarterback. Clemson couldn’t win it with four defensive linemen who will be picked in the first two rounds of the draft. Georgia has a historically good backfield. And Alabama? It might be the most Processed team college football has ever felt.
Follow me on Twitter @DanWolken.