Nick Saban, Alabama are reemerging in the SEC

And then in November 2023, Nick Saban used the word “naysayers.”

“Naysayers” long has served sports as a verbal province of the overlooked, the undermanned, the disrespected, those embittered by slights either real or manufactured. “Naysayers” often comes up concerning teams who have completed some round trip to hell (which Saban’s Alabama technically has not). “Naysayers” would qualify as a sort of antonym to “rat poison,” Saban’s long-preferred phrase concerning the motivational perils of the ingestion of praise. “Naysayers” can concern the motivational value of the ingestion of insults.

Two months ago, on the night of Sept. 9, Alabama lost at home to Texas, 34-24, and by one of the more belittling of ways: a 21-8 fourth-quarter thumping that ended as Texas drained the final 7:14 off the clock with 12 running plays in a statement of superior manhood. You didn’t have to go hunting in the exurbs of your WiFi to find people who could be construed as naysayers, including Alabama fans who, while bloated with six recent national titles and seven College Football Playoff appearances, craved further dessert.

Some of them maybe even drunk-posted.

Right after that, on Sept. 16, Alabama nudged past South Florida, 17-3, after being tied at three at halftime.

Some naysayers probably just drank.

So on Saturday afternoon, Nov. 11, after Alabama romped past an above-average Kentucky team 49-21 on the road to reach both 9-1 and the SEC championship game, Saban told reporters, “I think there’s probably very few people after the Texas game or the South Florida, a lot of naysayers out there, that never really believed in these guys. I’ve always believed in this team and trusted in this team that they would develop into something that’s special, and it has been special. It’s been a great experience to see them grow and develop the confidence that they need to, you know, play really well.”

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This has been the year the eyeballs finally ignored Alabama. Objective eyeballs trained giddily upon Colorado, of all places, as Deion Sanders’s arrival there became a bastion of freshness and a beacon of hope before first-season realities butted in. (A 34-31 home loss to surging Arizona on Tyler Loop’s game-ending 24-yard field goal Saturday left the Buffaloes at 4-6 and 1-6 in the Pac-12, with the recruiting still promising.) Eyeballs tilted on up to Seattle, where Washington has conducted a delight of a season in a place whose turns of excellence always enhance the sport. (The Huskies’ blanking of No. 18 Utah in the second half Saturday allowed for an 11-0 score after halftime, a 35-28 win, a 10-0 record and a 21-2 record for second-year Coach Kalen DeBoer.)

Eyeballs noticed reemerging Florida State, briefly prominent Oklahoma, mostly excellent Texas, drama-ridden Southern California and outstanding Oregon, whose 36-27 win over USC late Saturday night left the Ducks 9-1 and left a potential Washington-Oregon rematch for the Pac-12 championship looking even more sumptuous. They must take more than a gander now at LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels, whose mind-boggling 606 total yards Saturday night against Florida — 372 passing, 234 rushing — made him the first player ever with 350-plus and 200-plus, and made Coach Brian Kelly say, “If you want (the Heisman Trophy) to be the most popular, then fine, but he is the best player in college football.” This comes piled right atop Daniels’s 219 passing yards and 163 rushing yards at Alabama before a nasty hit cost him much of the fourth quarter.

Then since Oct. 19, of course, eyeballs have focused upon Michigan and the sign-stealing phantasmagoria, a matter that has reiterated how a central component of the human condition is the insatiable curiosity about what might be happening behind all the world’s various curtains.

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Speaking of the human condition, forgotten Saban, among the youngest 72-year-olds in history, also said this Saturday: “It seems like every team we’ve had in recent years, there’s these huge expectations, and you never want the expectations to impact you, but because there were such high expectations, you know it was almost like you were relieved to get the players to be where they needed to be so they could have success. With this team, I don’t have these kinds of expectations. I know we could be good. I believed in them. But I knew it was gonna be a work in progress.”

His remarks this year have bubbled with this marvel of a word: “fun.”

He does seem happy, his very countenance less troubled, for he has just grasped an experience unavailable to him for so long: the curious coaching privilege of being overlooked. The Crimson Tide and quarterback Jalen Milroe, who had gone benched at South Florida, have improved unmistakably through the autumn in a manner just about detectable game by game. Now Milroe has become the second Alabama quarterback of recent years named Jalen who hails from the Houston area and has spent at least some character-building, character-telling time on the sideline before thriving again. (The other, Jalen Hurts, clearly has flopped in life since.) Milroe has run gorgeously as ever — 155 yards against LSU on Nov. 4 — and passed more beautifully as the season has unfolded.

“It’s like the Bryce [Young] effect,” Alabama offensive lineman Tyler Booker told reporters in Lexington. “You’ve got to keep holding your blocks because you don’t know what this guy could do.” As for the leadership, Booker extolled: “Perfect explanation was the USF game. You know, he didn’t play. He was resilient. He did everything in his power to help us win. His role that day was encouraging whoever was in the game, you know, so seeing that from a quarterback, seeing that from one of the leaders of the team, was very inspiring. It’s just contagious. Everybody feels it.”

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Now with the Alabama-Georgia matchup set for the Dec. 2 SEC championship game, a giggly prospect emerges: Upstart (cough) Alabama claims the hearts of underdog-lovers all around as it battles all the elements set against it, maybe even to reward again its longtime coach who, according to posts of the night of Sept. 9, needed to step aside. (Can you imagine? Yes, you can.) It thrives against the giants less than two years since Saban fretted aloud about NIL alarm bells and how they imperiled Alabama against more moneyed places such as Texas A&M. It thrives with a quarterback, Milroe, who chose Alabama over neighboring Texas A&M (among others).

“I was really pleased,” Saban said Saturday and in November 2023, “that the team didn’t buy into the rat poison [after recent wins] or whatever you want to call it.”

Rat poison resurfaces! It’s all such merry lunacy, and if the team Saban loves persists like this, “rat poison” will begin again to trounce “naysayers” in his references.

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