HOOVER, Ala. — It might not have been obvious at the time as Alabama rolled to a perfect regular season, an SEC title, a convincing semifinal win over Oklahoma and one of the most dominant starts in the history of the sport.
But looking back months later, the cracks Clemson exposed in that shocking 44-16 championship-game blowout had been showing for weeks. Those cracks existed because of one overarching reason.
The Crimson Tide had strayed too far from The Process.
“As a team, we were goal-oriented the second half of last season,” quarterback Tua Tagovailoa said Wednesday during SEC media days at the Hyatt Regency Birmingham-Wynfrey Hotel. “We played looking at the scoreboard.”
And for Nick Saban’s system, that’s a problem.
His Alabama blueprint isn’t based on goals or points or winning. It’s based on executing every tiny detail the right way throughout the entire organization, from Saban all the way down through the recruiters, nutritionists, secretaries and players. If you do that — if you follow The Process — the winning takes care of itself.
It’s an all-consuming, complicated machine. When it works, it’s unstoppable, like when the Tide became the first team in the modern era to win its first 12 games by at least 20 points each.
But if one of the machine’s hundreds of moving parts fails, The Process doesn’t work. And somewhere during the back half of 2018, one — or several — of the parts broke down.
So what, exactly, went wrong?
Saban referenced “the habits that you created leading up to the game the second half of the season” as a contributor in the most stunning loss of his career. He kept going.
“I think that we didn’t play with the discipline at the end of the season that we’d like to have as a team…” Saban said. “Whether or not people were worried about personal outcomes more than team outcomes, it's always hard to judge that. But it seems like we had a lot of distractions at the end of the year.”
It’s easy to assume he meant personal outcomes and distractions regarding players. Tagovailoa, after all, was a Heisman Trophy finalist. Ten players were about to be drafted.
But the Tide’s offseason suggests there were bigger problems in the coaches’ offices. Alabama replaced — or had to replace — seven of its 10 assistants, including offensive coordinator Mike Locksley (now the head coach at Maryland), defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi (Browns defensive line coach) and quarterbacks coach Dan Enos (Miami offensive coordinator).
A second consecutive year of massive coaching turnover has only reinforced the perception that Saban and The Process are difficult on his assistants.
“They may say that,” Saban said, “but then when they get a job and they go do it, they do it exactly like we did it.”
That’s true, except it hasn’t worked for most of them, aside from Jimbo Fisher, Kirby Smart and Mark Dantonio.
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The Gators have hired two Sabanites (Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain) to bring The Process to Gainesville. Both failed. Why? Because winning the Saban way requires such a deep, across-the-board commitment that it’s nearly impossible to replicate but very easy to get wrong.
And somewhere in the final few weeks of last season, it went wrong in Tuscaloosa.
Saban didn’t say it directly, but read between the lines of what he said during his preamble Wednesday.
“We sort of look at every season as if, you know, we took a new job,” Saban said in a departure from his usual media day talking points. “We’re starting all over, trying to re-establish the principles and values of the organization that helped us be successful with everybody within the organization.”
The only reason you need to re-establish those principles and values is if you strayed too far from them in the first place.
’Bama, apparently, did. The Tide just didn’t realize it until it was too late.
Contact Matt Baker at email@example.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.