There’s no denying it: Nick Saban’s absence will loom over Alabama-Georgia showdown
Is it acceptable to wonder how this stunning development might affect Saturday night and the game of the year thus far, No. 3 Georgia’s visit to No. 2 Alabama? Is it wrong to say something this jarring will lend the game a layer of lore set to last all the way into next century, whenever SEC football fans discuss October 2020, whenever they discuss whether this ended up an Alabama burden or an Alabama cause? Is it okay to attempt to gauge how a sideline presence so intensely involved in 14 seasons of Alabama games might function from his home?
Is it tolerable to find any of this funny?
Nick Saban did find something Wednesday evening when he took 10 minutes of questions from reporters via video. Feeling no symptoms and looking great at 68, his face a wave of health, he told of going straight home after his midday test result, thus missing practice. “I can tell you we’ve had a lot worse practices when I’ve been there,” he concluded, “so maybe it was a good thing I wasn’t there.”
Then he did laugh, which he does a bit more than reputed, his occasional outbursts usually snaring the attention and luring the clicks.
The eccentric truth is his expected absence from the game at Bryant-Denny Stadium dovetails with the theme already entrenched when this cross-division matchup that doesn’t happen every year turned up on the 2020 schedule. Can Georgia ever beat Alabama again? Surely it will someday, but its plight in trying to do so has left it subject to the kind of talk-radio analysis that centers on Michigan and its annual woes with Ohio State.
It couldn’t beat Alabama when it led 20-7 in the third quarter of the 2017-18 College Football Playoff championship game in Atlanta. It couldn’t beat Alabama when it led 28-14 in the third quarter of the 2018 SEC championship game and lined up for a 30-yard field goal to boot. (It missed.) It couldn’t beat Alabama when Crimson Tide starting quarterback Jalen Hurts stalled and had to yield to backup Tua Tagovailoa in that former game, and it couldn’t beat Alabama when Tagovailoa got injured and had to yield to Hurts in that latter game.
It hasn’t beaten Alabama since Sept. 22, 2007, in Saban’s first Alabama season, when they went to overtime in Tuscaloosa and Alabama led 23-20 until Georgia scored on Mikey Henderson’s 25-yard touchdown catch from Matthew Stafford. Now Stafford has gone to the NFL long enough to become a mainstay’s mainstay — 12 seasons — while Alabama has beaten Georgia five times across 13 years, beginning with Stafford’s final Georgia season of 2008.
Then everybody got to 2020, and the SEC got started, and Georgia’s defense looked peerless, and Alabama’s defense looked porous. Then the SEC season went from fingers crossed to star-crossed, and Alabama probably won’t have its coach or 75 percent of its fans in its stadium.
It has Saban saying, “I’m not sure exactly how this is going to play out in terms of when the game comes.” That’s rare uncertainty for a man who has fought so long to minimize — no, atomize — uncertainty. Wagering lines have shifted from a touchdown or more to down around four points in most cases. So if Georgia can’t win this time . . .
Is it uncouth to entertain that thought, or is it one of those distractions from the anxiety?
In his stalwart way, Saban tilted it toward the latter. “Our guys have showed great maturity,” Saban said of his team through the spring and summer and early fall of 2020, adding, “I’m sure they’ll handle this in a positive way as well.” He also said: “I feel fine. I felt fine. I was very surprised by this.” He wasn’t entirely unprepared. Coaching staffs around the country have been holding meetings about succession lines, carefully planned protocols for if any coach tests positive.
He hurried home, he told the team by Zoom about the test, and then he watched practice. “I had the manager, had a phone,” he said. “If I wanted a play repeated, I said: ‘Replay that play. So-and-so messed up.’ So I didn’t leave the country or anything. I’m just right down the street.” He said he hadn’t “blocked anybody or tackled anybody, caught any passes, thrown any passes in a game for a long, long time, so it’s still going to be up to how our players execute, and it’s up to us to get them in the best position to do that.”
In that, he managed to describe how, in one wretched turn for one man within a global tragedy, a big game got a notch more curious. Because almost nobody has been through anything like this before, it’s hard to know whether such curiosity is acceptable.