TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Only Alabama could end one season with back-to-back losses and begin the next as a favorite to play for the national championship. But such is the empire that coach Nick Saban has built in Tuscaloosa: through recruiting, through coaching, through sheer determination, through "The Process."
The two losses were heartbreaking. One took the Tide's breath away. The other took the Tide's heart. Rebounding from that devastating punch combination won't be easy.
But given how the season ended and who won't be back for the 2014 reboot, does Alabama deserve to be No. 2 in Mark Schlabach's Way-Too-Early Preseason Top 25? Let's take a look and see if it makes sense.
The case for
Yes, AJ McCarron is leaving for the NFL. So is C.J. Mosley. And several underclassmen could follow their lead as well.
But Alabama has a precocious commodity right now: Stability. Saban didn't bolt for Texas, offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier didn't get the job at Washington and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart hasn't seen his name bandied about in coaching circles as much as in years past. While there's a lot of time left for such moves to be made, right now the entire staff looks to be back for next season.
Beyond the coordinators and assistants, Saban's "process" remains in place, and that should be the biggest boon for Tide fans heading into an offseason wrought with question marks. Saban's way of doing things -- recruiting the best talent in the country, coaching 'em up and sticking to certain fundamentals on both sides of the ball -- has worked awfully well the past five years. As I've caught many around Tuscaloosa saying of late, "Three out of five ain't bad."
The quarterback position will be critical this spring and fall camp, but there won't be a lack of talent surrounding whoever wins the job. Alabama is stacked at receiver, with a healthy Amari Cooper leading the charge. O.J. Howard looks like a difference maker at tight end. And then there's the matter of T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry and the rest of the running backs.
Talent, on both sides of the ball, is reason enough for having Alabama ranked so highly.
The case against
Try ignoring the loss of McCarron all you want, but it's unavoidable. And, yes, the same could be said for Mosley.
Really, they're the same player in a lot of ways, one quarterbacking the offense and the other quarterbacking the defense. Both won multiple championships, both were unquestioned leaders and both were NFL talents.
But beyond the personnel on the field and beyond the coaching staff is a fundamental concern for Alabama. The question is one that was unthinkable in the recent past: Is Saban's "process" being passed by?
It's probably too early to say, but the evidence is growing. You can call Auburn's Iron Bowl victory a fluke, but how the Tigers got so close -- running all over the defense, forcing Saban into questionable calls -- was no accident. The same can be said of Oklahoma as the Sooners gashed the defense and pressured the quarterback. Even in defeat, Mississippi State and Texas A&M made Alabama look bad at times.
Going back to the drawing board won't be easy, but it's worth a try. With a new quarterback, even the offense has a chance to change for the better.
But with so much change and so many questions to be answered, does Alabama deserve to be looked at as the No. 2 team in the country next year?
Maybe not now, but maybe later. And that's what the offseason is for.