Nick Saban's expertise knows no bounds.
His most prescient example has been on display more than ever in the past few seasons across the SEC East.
The two most productive branches of his coaching tree have gone to conferences other than the SEC: Mark Dantonio and Jimbo Fisher have built programs at Michigan State and Florida State. Meanwhile, the SEC's subsequent efforts to "find the next Saban" have been fruitless, and as long as Saban is on top, he shows no signs of letting a former assistant get the best of him or build a program that lunges past Alabama as the SEC's standard-bearer.
And yet, SEC programs -- exclusively those in the East -- keep on hiring them in hopes of making it happen.
The logic isn't necessarily faulty. Time and a mountain of examples have simply exposed the strategy as specious at best and foolhardy at worst. Hiring a Saban assistant is like playing Texas hold'em, knowing your opponent is holding pocket kings and going all in with a suited jack and queen anyway. You've still got a pretty good hand, but what chance do you have at knocking off the big stack at the table?
"Maybe if we hire someone who knows how he ticks, we'll find a way to beat him."
In reality, the reverse appears to be far more accurate. The idea that Saban's reign as the king of the SEC -- and really, college football -- will end at the hands of a protégé looks sillier by the day. In fact, the next time a Saban assistant beats him head-to-head will be the first. They've all come up empty in nine tries. (The next big test will be on Sept. 2, when Saban meets Fisher and Florida State.)
Third-year Florida coach and former Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain owns two of those losses. Both came in sleepy fashion, a pair of SEC title game defeats by 14 and 38 points the past two seasons.
McElwain and his new division rival, former Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, both took to the dais at SEC media days on Tuesday, and South Carolina's Will Muschamp -- who coached under Saban at LSU and in the NFL -- takes his turn on Thursday. The SEC East, which hasn't won the conference since 2008, has become Sabanized, and it's done nothing to chip away at the crimson dynasty on the other side of the conference.
Rather than innovate, the SEC East elected to duplicate. If you can't beat him, go ahead and hire somebody who, for a time, was in his vicinity. The results have been feeble, but the lot has been cast in the division over and over. South Carolina is trying it with Muschamp, despite Muschamp going just 17-15 in SEC play at Florida from 2011-14. Derek Dooley, who was also on Saban's staff at LSU and in the NFL, went 15-21 overall in three forgettable seasons at Tennessee.
Smart and McElwain are the newest examples of Saban disciples trying to reenergize blue-blooded programs. If you've lost count, that's five SEC East programs since 2010 that elected to hire an assistant with at least four years of experience on a Saban coaching staff. Smart spent seven years coordinating Saban's defenses in Tuscaloosa before hopping directly into one of college football's premier jobs.
McElwain deserves credit for a pair of division titles, but he's coaching Florida in a down period of the SEC East and has thus far struggled to build effective offenses.
The Gators won national titles in 2006 and 2008 before Urban Meyer's unceremonious exit. Those division title trophies have a curious effect: They do very little to assuage fans' demand for greatness. Expectations only rise and scrutiny intensifies.
"We were there just yesterday. Why can't we be there again? And why not every year?"
Florida football (and underachieving Georgia, while we're on the subject) does not exist to win division titles and be subsequently sacrificed at the altar of Saban in Atlanta on the first Saturday of December. It's cause to wonder if those in charge of hiring have paid any attention to the parade of swings and misses at dethroning Saban -- or the haymakers that have caused his empire to wobble, even if those wobbles were ever so slight.
Saban is at his best when teams try to beat him at his own game. He spends his offseasons on the phone and on the road to assure his roster makes winning the line of scrimmage a physical impossibility. When Dantonio tried to do it in a playoff game, his team was embarrassed, 38-0 -- just like it was in a 49-7 Capital One Bowl loss in 2010.
Fast-paced, wide-open offense with great quarterback play supplied a crack in the foundation as teams like Texas A&M and Ole Miss exploited the weakness in high-profile wins over Alabama in recent seasons. Clemson showcased similar success in the past two titles games but has had a Bama-esque defense to match its Heisman-caliber quarterback and star receivers.
Opponents scored more than 30 points against Alabama just three times in 2015 and 2016 combined. Two came from Clemson and Deshaun Watson in national championship contests. The other two came from Ole Miss. Alabama gave up 34 and 45 points to Auburn and Oklahoma, respectively, in the final two games of 2013, both losses. It gave up 44 and 42 points to Auburn and Ohio State, respectively, in two of the final three games of 2014.
The answer to beating Saban probably isn't buying fully into the spread, though some version of it would have better luck than trying to gain ground on an Alabama defensive line that constantly reloads with first-round picks and has finished in the top 10 in run defense every season since 2008, Saban's second year at Alabama. If you're in LSU's shoes, not only do you lose to Alabama, you lose in a game that's become unwatchable.
No one beats Alabama and Saban at their own game. As it stands, Father Time seems like the only man capable of ending Saban's reign. For now, we're still looking for the first shred of evidence that a Saban protégé has any hope of knocking Alabama off its perch.