Senior College Football Columnist

Six seasons into Saban era, Alabama keeps getting separation from rest


TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The view from the top at the moment will give you vertigo.

It's easy to forget this modern rebirth of Alabama football is only in its sixth year since Nick Saban arrived. But a new angle, a new reality has developed. Look down from that No. 1 ranking at the moment and you're likely to get dizzy and step away from the edge. Scared of heights? You better be. From here at Alabama it's a long way down to the next level of football.

Sure, we can argue that USC, Oregon or LSU deserve to be in the discussion. But even then, the number of challengers to rule 2012 is not much bigger than the number of runners in a wishbone, a formation Bear himself installed here in the early 1970s.

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Alabama is not only great again, it is dominant, about to leave the game behind, peer down on the huddled masses. That's how the season has been defined, two weeks in. After coming from behind to win titles in '09 and '11 -- Bama spent a total of one week at the top of the AP poll during those two regular seasons -- the Tide shot to No. 1 after that season-opening evisceration of Michigan.

You have been warned, while Saban himself warns his team on a regular basis.

"You don't get re-dos," he said.

Actually, you do, Nick. It's the only reason you won it all last year. The voters and computers deemed Alabama worthy of that LSU rematch. How good is life in T-town? Even when Bama loses, all is not lost.

Check those challengers going into a once-bigger-than-it-was game with Arkansas. LSU has lost its Heisman finalist Tyrann Mathieu forever and four other players this season due to academic deficiencies. Oregon faces a probation that could come down this season. Buzz-producing USC, in the midst of its own probation, looked vulnerable last week against Syracuse.

Picky? Maybe but when the Tide wiped out Michigan it was Alabama that went from defending champion -- Saban hates that term -- to clear-cut 2012 favorite. Just like back in the day, Bama's biggest opponents have become its legacy and expectations. After the Tide's fourth shutout in 13 games against Western Kentucky on Saturday, a Sunday Birmingham News headline blared "Sub-Par But Plenty Good Enough."

"We win 35-0, they kind of don't even really clap," center Barrett Jones said of Tide's beyond-rabid fans. "It's like, 'Uh, good job, got a lot to work on.'"

Jones isn't complaining, he's explaining. That's the way Saban wants it. Part of "The Process" is playing for the moment. That moment suddenly includes a ravaged Arkansas. The sting from the Hogs' epic loss to Louisiana-Monroe still … stings. So does the head of quarterback Tyler Wilson, who is day-to-day after taking a shot against the Warhawks.

Somewhere, Saban is grinding his teeth. If he thought media weren't giving Western Kentucky enough credit last week, he has to worry about the Hogs not getting any. Their rent-a-coach John L. Smith is living on borrowed time. Their (previously) Heisman-worthy tailback Knile Davis is off to a slow start. And how has Arkansas not been able to consistently field an SEC-quality defense?

That's the gift from Bobby Petrino that keeps on giving.

What looked like the game of the week before the season now features one team that is game and another that is weak.

"The first thing that went through my mind is, 'I hope we don't take this game lightly," Jones said.

As if things weren't good enough for Alabama, life couldn't be much worse for bitter rival Auburn. The Tigers have started 0-2 and there are rumblings that coach Gene Chizik won't make it to 2013. Even if the Tigers rebound this week (against Louisiana-Monroe!), Chizik has to know that Alabama itself could get him fired -- by winning a third national championship in four years.

Such is the power and might of Bama in an age where it has contributed to the death of parity. Win the SEC these days and you're playing for the national championship, at least. The larger lesson here is never to be complacent. Two years ago Saban came down on his 2010 team, the one that won 10 games after winning the '09 national championship. This might be one of the few places in college sports, where human nature doesn't apply. Alabama isn't allowed a letdown.

"The season is a grind," Saban said in a rare philosophical moment, "and you have to embrace the grind."

"We just don't have that same kind of feeling as 2010," said Jones, the unofficial spokesman for the team. "We were kind of satisfied with what we had done. We weren't that hungry. This year we're hungry. Effort hasn't been a problem."

The Tide had two, maybe three, days to celebrate in January before there was a meeting and the arrow was pointed toward 2012. Is that quick turnaround unique to Alabama?

"I don't think so," senior left tackle Chance Warmack said. "Maybe the 2010 team thought that."

While those finicky fans were obsessing over six sacks by Western Kentucky, they had to be heartened by a defense that has created seven turnovers. Alabama is tied for second in turnover margin. A defense that lost seven starters already has its own identity.

"One aspect of our game is to affect the quarterback, make him feel less comfortable," said linebacker Nico Johnson.

Heaven help Wilson's backup, Brandon Allen who went 6 of 20 against the Warhawks.

"Nobody here should be feeling warm and cozy about the other team's circumstance or situation," Saban said.

He was talking about Arkansas. Saban could have been referring to the rest of the country.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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