No, Nicholas Lu Saban was not going to miss a football game, and especially not the magnitude of Saturday night. At home, against No. 3 Georgia and his coach, Kirby Smart, Saban would find his way to Bryant-Denny Stadium. He tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday, and three days later he had three negative tests that he needed to return. He caught a state jawan just after appearing in the third Test, and less than 30 minutes later he was at the team hotel for pregame meetings.
And later that night, after Saban led his team to a husky applause on the field, he did what he has always done, greeting a former assistant for the 22nd consecutive time in his career. After so much of a start, in which his defense struggled with a number of unproven mistakes, Alabama injured Georgia to remain the only undefeated team in the SEC and won 41–24.
It didn’t take long to learn that Saban felt himself again as he towed freshman linebacker Will Anderson after a touchdown in the first quarter and a few minutes later shouted bloody murder at the referee after a call for a deliberate grounding. When a defensive lineman jumps offside at fourth-and-1, automatically down first, Saban was next to himself, keeping both hands out as if to ask why.
The mad perfectionist was back in all his glory.
At halftime, Saban and his assistants made whatever adjustments they were able to make, as losing defenses revealed being in total control. After forcing back-to-back penalties, freshman Nickel back Malachi Moore eliminated Statesman Bennett, and happily traded a seven-point and double-digit lead, leaving Nazi Harris behind. Then, some time later, security Daniel Wright again lifted Bennett. And, again, the offense did the rest, as Mack Jones led his Heiman Trophy campaign with a fourth touchdown pass, truly putting the game to bed.
Safety DeMarco Helms said the defense wanted to make a statement in the second half. He said that Saban insisted that it would be a 15-round fight and the game would end. And he scored zero points in the third and fourth quarters.
No, it was not pulling Jalan Hurts in favor of Tua Tagovelloa, but it was a part of a timely change nonetheless. And if Saban was not there, if he had not cleared for hours to vacate the COVID protocol and was watching on TV like the rest of us, then who knows what Alabama talks about?
No disrespect to Steve Sarkissian, who called the brilliant game as offensive coordinator, but he is not Nick Saban. No one can fill those shoes.
Later, when Saban spoke to reporters, he did not notice any flaws in the first half or any kind. Instead, he said it was a “clearly spectacular win” and was proud of his team’s fight.
Mostly, he was proud of how his players handled his distraction. When he wasn’t in the practice area on Friday, when his straw hat was so missing, a source told ESPN it was bizarre and felt like an episode of The Twilight Zone.
Saban appeared healthy during his Wednesday news conference and his radio showed up the next night, but who really knew? For three days, the college football world noted Saban’s condition and whether he could return.
Saban tried to prepare his players for any situation. He told them that he hadn’t caught a pass or done a tackle in 40 years, so how good was he during a game? From afar, he tried to keep them focused on work.
When Saban showed up at the team hotel before kickoff, the players were not ready. Jones said Saban called the reaction “very insane” as he stepped into the quarterback room unannounced.
Senior linebacker Dylan Moses said that Saban’s going there to be a walk-through gave everyone a new energy. Seeing Saban walking through the door, he said, “Our confidence went through the roof.”
And that, perhaps more than any in-game adjustment or halftime speech, is the real value of having Sabron on the sideline: the confidence his presence brings. Now for 14 seasons, he is a fixture in Alabama. As it turns out, even a positive COVID-19 test cannot stop him from showing.