TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – We should have known all along that Nick Saban would not miss a day’s work. He has always appeared more machine than man during his time in the eyes of the public – a creation of routine and process that had hardly made it worse than sniffing during his six national championship races. He underwent hip replacement surgery last year, and the day after he went under the knife, his wife found him standing in the driveway, eager to get back to the office.
No, Nicholas Lou Saban would not miss a football game, and especially not a size on Saturday night. At home to No. 3 Georgia and its coach, Kirby Smart, Saban wanted to find a way to get to Bryant-Denny Stadium. He tested positive for COVID-1
And later in the evening, after Saban led his team out on the field to a fierce applause, he did what he always did, besting a former assistant for the 22nd straight in a row in his career. After a so-so-poor start in which his defense struggled with a series of uncharacteristic errors, Alabama found a foothold and convincingly settled Georgia, 41-24, to remain the only undefeated team in the SEC.
It didn’t take long to learn that Saban felt like him again when he tore in novice linebacker Will Anderson after a touchdown in the first quarter and screamed bloody murder of a referee after a call to intentional grounding a few minutes later. When a defensive lineman jumped offside on the fourth-and-1, triggering an automatic first down, Saban was right next to himself, sticking both hands out as if to ask why.
The mad perfectionist was back in all his glory.
At the break, the adjustments Saban and his assistants made because the defense went from looking lost to being in full control worked. After forcing back-to-back points, novice-nickel-back Malachi Moore Stetson Bennett chose, and Najee Harris gladly swapped revenue for seven points and a double-digit lead. Then moments later, security chose Daniel Wright Bennett again. And again, the offense did the rest when Mac Jones promoted his Heisman Trophy campaign with a fourth touchdown pass that really put the game to bed.
Security DeMarcco Hellams said the defense would make a statement in the second half. He said Saban stressed that this would be a 15-round match and to end the game. And they did, delivering zero points in the third and fourth quarters.
No, it was not Saban who pulled Jalen Hurts in favor of Tua Tagovailoa, but it was still quite a bit of a lap at the break. And if Saban was not there, if he had not cleared the COVID protocol with hours left over and watched TV like the rest of us in the country, who knows if Alabama will find out?
No respect for Steve Sarkisian, who called a brilliant game as offensive coordinator, but he’s not Nick Saban. No one can fill these shoes.
Afterwards, when Saban spoke to reporters, he did not dwell on a shocking first half or the shortcomings that may have been. Instead, he said it was an “obviously big win” and that he was proud of his team’s fight.
For the most part, he was proud of how his players handled the distraction of being gone. When he was not at the training ground on Friday, when his straw hat was so markedly missing, a source told ESPN that it was bizarre and that it felt like an episode of The Twilight Zone.
Saban seemed healthy during his Wednesday conference and his radio show the following evening, but who really knew? For three days, the college football world was obsessed with Saban’s condition and whether he could return.
Saban tried to prepare his players for both situations. He told them he hadn’t taken a passport or made a tackle in 40 years, so what did he give them during a game anyway? Far from it, he tried to keep them focused on the current task.
When Saban showed up at the team hotel before kickoff, the players were not prepared. Jones said the reaction “was pretty crazy” when Saban entered the quarterback room unannounced.
Senior linebacker Dylan Moses said Saban was there for reviews bringing an extra energy to everyone. When he saw Saban walking through the door, he said, “Our trust went through the roof.”
And that, perhaps more than any in-game adjustment or half-hour, is the real value of having Saban on the sidelines: the confidence his presence brings. For 14 seasons now, he has been a fixture in Alabama. As it turns out, not even a positive COVID-19 test can prevent him from showing up.