Youmans: As college football changes, Saban remains force

June 5, 2022 03:08 PM
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It’s possible Nick Saban is sincerely concerned about the future of college football and wants to send a wake-up call. It might also be that the Alabama coach is cranky after winning only one of the last four national championships and sees the competition closing the gap.

All of that could be true, especially the part about Saban being cranky. He’s as pleasant to be around as a Marine drill sergeant, and a relentless pursuit of perfection is what makes him great. On the surface, it appears Saban has little to fear in 2022.

“Alabama looks like the team to beat again,” DraftKings sportsbook director John Avello said. “Nothing has changed. Alabama is normally laying big numbers and will be favored in all of their games.”

But coaches don’t think like oddsmakers. Saban always fears not being No. 1, which is likely why he’s criticizing the new NIL (name, image and likeness) deals that compensate players while taking shots at rival Texas A&M.

First of all, how strong should Saban’s team be this season? DraftKings provided an answer by recently opening lines on the seven biggest games on the Crimson Tide schedule. Alabama is a double-digit favorite in each, with five of those games on the road.

In what will be a hyped nonconference duel — the home dog has not yet left the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference — Alabama is a 14-point favorite at Texas on Sept. 10. In SEC play, the Tide is laying 16 points at Arkansas, 16.5 against Texas A&M, 13 at Tennessee, 14.5 at LSU, 13.5 at Mississippi and 23.5 against Auburn.

Saban brings back arguably the nation’s top offensive player, quarterback Bryce Young, and top defensive player, outside linebacker Will Anderson Jr., to headline another loaded roster. The Tide also benefited from the transfer portal by adding running back Jahmyr Gibbs from Georgia Tech.

"With that offense and Anderson returning to spearhead the defense, I would generally recommend taking the Tide this season when laying less than 17 points,” said Paul Stone, a Texas-based college football handicapper.

South Point sportsbook director Chris Andrews is normally among the first to open lines on big games and season win totals, but Andrews said he’s waiting until sometime in June this year. He needs more time to assess all of the transfers and make the sharpest power ratings possible.

“I really don’t want to rush into it,” Andrews said. “I’ve got Alabama No. 1 and Ohio State No. 2 and that’s not exactly news.”

DraftKings lists Alabama as the + 200 favorite to win the national championship, and Circa Sports recently posted the Tide as the -125 favorite to win the SEC championship. The Tide’s regular-season win total is surely going to be set at 11.5 for the 12-game schedule.

"The question in my mind is how heavily will Alabama’s total be juiced to the Over?” Stone said. “If I'm working for the house, I'm juicing the Over at -140."

Young, last year’s Heisman Trophy winner, and Anderson are candidates to go No. 1 in next year’s NFL draft. The Heisman odds board at DraftKings shows Young as the + 350 second choice behind Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud at + 250. Anderson is a 40-1 shot, but he’s the rare defensive player who actually could win the award. Anderson led the nation with 17.5 sacks and 34.5 tackles for loss last season.

It’s tough to say when the feud between Saban and Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher started, but the Aggies’ 41-38 upset of the Tide last season probably lit the fuse. Saban was 24-0 in games against his former assistants, including 4-0 versus Fisher, before the Aggies won as 17.5-point home dogs.

Texas A&M also topped Alabama in most recruiting rankings in the spring, something that surely bothered Saban, who spoke to a business group this month and was caught on tape saying, “A&M bought every player on their team — made a deal for name, image, likeness. We didn’t buy one player, all right?”

Fisher fired back, calling Saban a “narcissist” several times while basically accusing Alabama of paying players during Saban’s reign.

Anyone who’s naive enough to believe the Alabama program has been squeaky clean under Saban would be a prime target for telemarketing scams. Players have been collecting cash, cars and more from boosters across college football for decades, and Saban is a hypocrite for launching his tirade at Texas A&M.

The influence of money in recruiting is nothing new, but players are now compensated above the table instead of under it. The colleges with the most NIL buying power will win the recruiting battles and that’s the immediate future of the sport, like it or not. Saban apparently hates it, saying NIL deals are “completely out of control” and threaten to ruin college sports.

“The Saban-Jimbo thing is almost laughable,” said The Gold Sheet editor Bruce Marshall, who regularly attends the SEC media days in the offseason. “Saban made the comments and was never thinking it would leak. He was right about everything, but in the days of NIL, almost anything goes nowadays. ’Bama has and will take advantage of NIL as well as anyone. Jimbo missed his chance and should have used this as an opportunity to let the masses know that A&M is handling the NIL process better than anyone. There is probably still money flowing to recruits outside of NIL, but that happens everywhere in the SEC.

“Of course, college football remains a cesspool and it might get even worse until some uniform standards are set for NIL, but I’m not sure that will happen or if it could happen. My bet is that Ohio State is going to pay more than anybody.”

College football, Saban said correctly, is headed down the road of free agency with no salary cap. The NCAA seems too weak to stem the tide, no pun intended.

Saban will adjust and thrive as he always does. Alabama and similarly powerful programs will continue to dominate the sport, so not much will change at the top.

The Saban-Fisher feud will be a hot storyline and a handicapping angle on Oct. 8, when the Aggies will be big underdogs in Tuscaloosa.

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