"Living systems are never in equilibrium. They are inherently unstable. They may seem stable, but they’re not. Everything is moving and changing. In a sense, everything is on the edge of collapse."
-- Ian Malcom (Jurassic Park)
Alabama is going to have a good football team in 2013. It's likely that they'll have one of the best teams in the country, possibly the best. It's hard to pick another team and feel confident they'll be stronger than the 2013 Crimson Tide.
But Alabama won't win their third consecutive championship.
This isn't simply because there are 124 other teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision, but because maintaining excellence is extremely difficult, and football teams are contingent institutions.
Much like Steve Jobs or Herman Boone, Nick Saban is the ultimate process-oriented head of an organization. There are few coaches who can match the finely-tuned details of the Alabama war machine, as can be noted in Alabama's lack of defeats on the football field over the course of the Saban era.
But the difference between a championship and a good season is often razor thin. Nick Saban understands perfectly well how luck has played into each of Alabama's championships. After all, part one of the potential three-peat came against SEC champion LSU, a team that had already beaten Alabama in Tuscaloosa that year.
On the other hand, Alabama gets a great deal of credit and leeway with the voters because the rare occasions in which the Tide lose are not commanding victories by the opponent. The two defeats Alabama suffered in the last two years came by a combined margin of eight points.
A resounding defeat in 2013 could be the event that destroys the Tide's mystique in the minds of the pollsters.
There are a number of factors that will eventually coalesce to lead Alabama towards an outcome other than winning the national title, holding the crystal football aloft, and in Saban's case, working against his own nature to try and enjoy the moment.
A three-peat in college football, perhaps even more so than other sports, is a nearly impossible event. Different factors lead us toward the inevitable conclusion that Alabama won't win another title this year.
First Iteration: Minor flaws in the process appear
Heading into 2011, it was obvious that Alabama was going to bring a nightmarish defense to the field. The Tide were returning multiple starters from a defense that had grown quickly over the course of 2010 and finished fifth in the nation. There were questions about the offense and replacing the steady, mistake-free leadership of Greg McElroy, but it was clear that the defense alone would place Alabama amongst the league's elite.
Preceding 2012, there was a lot of speculation that Alabama would slip after another mass exodus of defensive stars. Without a dominant defense like what Saban had in 2009 or 2011, it wasn't anticipated that Alabama could win another title. However, this analysis ignored two important themes to the era of Saban-ball in Tuscaloosa.
First, even in 2010 the Crimson Tide had a very strong defense despite replacing nine starters. While it was clear that there would be a drop-off, it was more than reasonable to believe that Alabama would still be stingy. More importantly, Alabama was returning players that would form one of the biggest and meanest offensive lines the college football world has ever seen.
They settled All-American Barrett Jones at center and flanked him with junior Anthony Steen and senior Chance Warmack. At right tackle they had another massive senior in D.J. Fluker while Cyrus Kouandjio was the only talent (LT) that was still in more of a developmental stage.
The Jones/Warmack pairing proved to be especially devastating. Jones' ability to handle a nose tackle 1-on-1 as a center was probably the most defining feature of the entire Alabama offense. It allowed the Tide to often fire their guards immediately to the 2nd level on Inside zone without wasting time with the typical combo blocks of the zone run game:
The guards could similarly handle tackles without help on outside zone, freeing Jones to attack the linebackers.
There truly aren't any linebackers in this world who are very effective when linemen are parked in their laps that quickly after the ball is snapped. The entire purpose of linebackers is to basically have a reserve detachment that can arrive where the offense attacks and prevent the defense from being flanked. In order to achieve that goal, linebackers rely on awareness and rules about where to bring "the cavalry." Cavalry reserves aren't effective if the battle begins with the opponent's infantry marching into them before they even start moving.
The "F=MxA" elements of football also necessitate that linebackers have forward momentum before they engage offensive linemen in order to make up for the disparity at M(ass) with A(cceleration). Alabama's ability to send its interior linemen to the second level with momentum made many quality SEC linebackers look like walk-ons trying to stop Eddie Lacy or T.J. Yeldon.
Alabama's championship run was built from this simple foundation. The Tide mauled people with their interior line and punched holes in the middle of defenses. If a defense can't defend the middle of the field, there's not much else that it can defend, and Alabama's passing game feasted on the desperate scrambling of defenses attempting to fill in these holes.
Similarly, the Bama defense relies on the ability of its defensive line and inside linebackers to make the middle of its own defense a rock wall. This is Saban-ball, straightforward domination in the trenches. Again, it's his meticulous process of recruiting, teaching, developing, and overseeing that enables Alabama to build the trenchmen to achieve their success.
That said, peeking into 2013 there are major indicators that Alabama will not dominate either side of the ball to the extent they are accustomed.
On the defensive line the Tide are losing all three starters and plugging in up and comers Brandon Ivory (nose tackle), Ed Stinson (DE), and Jeoffrey Pagan (DE). While these are each very solid players and possibly future stars, the learning curve and necessary development to achieve dominance in the trenches in the SEC suggests that even plugging in talented players with some experience at this level will not necessarily result in a dominant unit. This is particularly true when considering that much of the rest of the SEC is returning massive numbers of starting offensive linemen. It's likely that Alabama's run defense will be stiff, but it's unlikely that it will achieve a level of play like it did in 2011.
Losing Warmack, Jones, and Fluker will result in similar problems. The new starters are both a little bit light and tall. Tall, light, first-year starters usually don't excel in either driving SEC defensive lines off the ball or executing the combo and pull blocks that made Alabama so devastating in 2012.
The returning starters, Kouandjio (LT) and Steen (RG), are both excellent in pass protection and are a good bet to grow as run blockers in 2013, but that is still a considerable downgrade from "all-time elite" to "very strong."
It's ridiculous that Alabama has been able to engineer such brilliant linemen on both sides of the ball in Tuscaloosa. It's natural that they should see something vaguely resembling a "down" year.
If Alabama lacks absolute dominance on either side of the trenches, can we assume that the Tide will dominate or only narrowly lose to every team on their schedule? I think not.
Second Iteration: Instability causes additional cracks to emerge
One area where it seems that Alabama is set up for great success is in the passing game, where it returns key weapons in quarterback AJ McCarron and sophomore receiver Amari Cooper, along with most of 2012's top receiving targets. Kouandjio is considered a potential first-round tackle prospect in the next draft, and Steen was great in pass protection in 2012. There are pieces here to suggest a potent passing attack.
However, the brilliant pass attack of 2012 was mostly built off of the run game. Much of the Bama passing game is built off constraint plays from the run game such as screens and play-action bombs. To dominate SEC secondaries at a level that would allow the run game to be built off the passing game would require the addition of extra concepts and, given the Tide's great youth at tight end, heavier use of spread sets.
We're talking about an identity overhaul from the risk-averse program of the power run game and low-risk/high-reward deep passes to one in which McCarron would be asked to make multiple reads on every play and hit receivers on short routes. Even the line, which looks well-designed to be a great pass-blocking unit, would be asked to master a lot of extra protections and improve blitz awareness to feature McCarron in the offense.
What's far more likely is that Alabama will make heavier use of the existing spread and pass game concepts already in the offense and still build around the run game. With McCarron and Cooper continuing to improve in the constraint plays, it's likely that the Tide can relieve pressure from the run game to the extent that it will still be a very effective offense in 2013.
But it won't be as strong as it was in 2012.
The defense will also encounter a few peripheral struggles. Alabama has two basic defenses: its Cover-2 and Cover-3 packages. Now, each of those defenses has a million checks, alignments, techniques, and possibilities that can change with different opponents, plans, or formations. Essentially, though, the base defense revolves around those concepts and a healthy mix of stunts and blitzes.
The Cover-3 and many of the blitzes serve to bring a safety closer to the box either to outnumber the run or free up another player to blitz. These coverages, along with Saban's preference for bump-and-run coverage on the outside, put a lot on the corners to defend deep routes down the sidelines.
With Dee Milliner or Dre Kirkpatrick, this wasn't a serious worry. With Deion Belue, John Fulton, and Geno Smith, however, that may be more concerning. It's not impossible that one or more of the young corners on the roster will make a leap in improvement, but we are now compounding multiple needs for the Alabama defense to achieve an elite level.
Additionally, while Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix is a rangy safety who can cover tremendous ground on the back end of a defense, if Saban wants to use him closer to the box as a playmaker, then another safety will have to step up, one who can handle the centerfield duties of a deep safety in Cover-3.
Alabama will probably get a great deal of mileage out of its Cover-2 defenses, but it may struggle to bring a dominant eight-man front to outnumber troublesome running games.
Third Iteration: Flaws in the system become severe
It's a hard time in the SEC for a league champion to attempt to re-establish its footing. As we covered in Part 1 and Part 2, the rest of the league has begun to abandon the foolish idea of attempting to out-Saban Alabama and is continuing Urban Meyer's spread revolution.
Challenging Alabama's identity of tight outside coverage, big imposing safeties/backers, and plodding pace is the no-huddle spread. Ole Miss has a loaded roster and some of the more creative offensive features in the nation, Gus Malzahn is back at rival Auburn, LSU is opening the playbook a bit, and Johnny Football looms.
Over in the East, Georgia will have to balance a loaded offense with a defense facing serious losses. Saban disciple Will Muschamp has Florida humming and slowly adapting to his desires for an Alabama-style power run game. What's more, Muschamp has already molded his defense to account for spread offenses after three years at Texas. In Austin, he faced Sam Bradford and Leach's Texas Tech teams, among others, plus he had to deal with Colt McCoy in practice. It is little surprise, then, that his Florida unit figured out how to defend Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M quicker than other units.
LSU and Florida (if Alabama were to face the Gators in the SEC Title game) will put the 2013 Tide's toughness in the middle to the test on both sides of the ball, while teams like Ole Miss and Texas A&M will challenge Alabama's ability to dominate the game in the air.
Alabama will be hard pressed to adapt its roster and style to match the developing trends in the game. Finding the right balance of physicality and range in the defensive front is a particularly challenging task. It's always a hard time to have growing pains in the SEC, but the trend towards more creative offenses and possibly higher-scoring games compound that issue.
Fourth Iteration: Championship becomes impossible
The strongest argument for Alabama achieving the three-peat, besides the obvious strength of the program as a whole, comes from the schedule. For an SEC slate, it's not that bad.
The Tide avoid the stronger teams in the East (Florida, Georgia, South Carolina) unless they potentially reach the league title game. The two most challenging games, LSU and @A&M, both come after bye weeks. The Iron Bowl vs. hated Auburn comes after a tune-up/rest stop against Chattanooga. The league schedule makers did their part to enable a three-peat.
"Malcolm Effect implies catastrophic changes."
"But Arnold says all the systems are working perfectly."
"That's when it happens."
-Ian Malcolm to Ellie Sattler (Jurassic Park)
However easy and well set-up the schedule appears now, it likely won't remain so after the season begins. Injuries, unexpected developments (or a lack of developments), weather patterns, specific matchup issues, and bounces will conspire to make the schedule much more difficult. Remember that dominant Alabama teams in 2011 and 2012 were unable to manage undefeated seasons.
The 2009 Texas team was fatally flawed in many ways, not least of which because of its total dependence on Colt McCoy to execute its specific offense and catalyze the run game. In the title game this finally resulted in him suffering a freak injury on an option play that quickly removed him from a game in which Texas had several initial advantages.
Alabama has a stronger system than that, but a few cracks and flaws in a team will always be drawn out and prodded in the pursuit of perfection.
The team still has several potentially huge games. Virginia Tech has a fast and veteran defense that could conceivably force turnovers that determine a ball game. LSU has a squad of phenomenal athletes who don't fear Alabama, and unfortunately for the Tide, A&M has learned not to fear them either.
Games like Ole Miss, Auburn, and perhaps even Tennessee may prove to be difficult in the right settings. Then there's the league title or BCS title game looming. Winning 4-5 games against comparable opponents is a difficult business, and winning 12-14 when every other game is a possible loss is even more difficult.
Without either elite play in the trenches or a system designed to thrive without elite play in the trenches, it will be very hard for Alabama to navigate that schedule without hiccups.
"So what are you saying? Ole Miss is going to upset Alabama and we should count on it?" Not quite, simply,
Three-peats don't happen for a reason, even with great teams. The reason is that no one else wants them to happen.