Nick Saban has won four national titles and played for a fifth in his decade at Alabama.

AP photo by Rogelio V. Solis

HOOVER, Ala. — When last we left Alabama, in the shadow of the big pirate ship behind the north end zone at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium, the Crimson Tide was running up the white flag.

Clemson sliced through Alabama’s spent defense like a plunderer’s blade, scoring on its 99th play with 1 second left as Deshaun Watson found Hunter Renfrow with a 2-yard touchdown pass in a 35-31 victory.

The Tigers’ stunning and thrilling win raised two important questions:

1. Has the Atlantic Coast Conference, which has now beaten the Southeastern Conference twice in the past four national championship games, ascended to become the top football conference in the land?

2. Are there enough cracks in the Alabama armor for a little hope to shine through for the rest of the SEC this season?

The Crimson Tide has won 17 straight SEC regular-season games and the past three conference championship games. But not only did Bama lose that night, it lost a lot personnel-wise, too.

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Alabama lost half its starters off last year’s 14-1 team, prompting Nick Saban to lament Wednesday at SEC media days that this was the youngest team he’s had since 2012, “especially on defense, where we lost a ton of really, really good players.”

So all you Tigers and Volunteers and Aggies out there, there is hope for you yet this season to topple the king.

Except … um, in 2012, didn’t that “young” Alabama team win yet another national championship, devouring Notre Dame down in Miami? And hasn’t the Crimson Tide stacked up No. 1 recruiting classes like gold bars at Fort Knox dating to, oh say, the dawn of the millennium?

It wasn’t Bear Bryant-class poormouthing on Saban’s part. Not hardly. And you get a sense that he’s relishing the challenge of getting Bama back to the top again in 2017, even if for Alabama the climb is more like ascending a single flight of stairs instead of trekking up K2 in the dead of winter.

Ever the sound-bite factory, ol' Nick has even fashioned himself an appropriate catchphrase, one he trotted out like a campaign slogan again and again Wednesday.

“We’re always trying to self-assess to see what we need to do to get better,” Saban said, a chilling thought. “I think when you lose, the mindset is much more ‘I’m willing to change. I want to learn.’

“I don’t want to waste a failure.”

I don’t want to waste a failure. ONE loss? One loss in the national championship game after 14 wins? That kind of failure gets most coaches raises and contract extensions. Of course, at Alabama, he’s been elected coach for life and is being paid more than the gross domestic product of Portugal, so there’s not much wiggle room there.

You know what winds Saban’s watch anyway: the process. The process has led him to four national titles at Alabama, plus the 2003 BCS championship at LSU. It’s the process that just seems to inevitably result in titles.

In that sense, even after a crushing defeat, Saban has 'em right where he wants 'em.

First of all, there’s that replacing-half-the-starters thing. Player turnover is something even mighty Alabama can’t avoid, though having its starting quarterback (sophomore Jalen Hurts) return for the first time since 2013 is a good place to start.

Remember how everyone’s one knock on Hurts last year was his passing ability? Saban said he’s been working hard on that through the summer and has really improved. You know Nick doesn’t toss around compliments too liberally, so that can’t be good news for the rest of the league.

Hurts will of course be running an offense directed by not one new coordinator, but two. Saban for all intents banished Lane Kiffin last December, not to LSU to become Ed Orgeron’s offensive coordinator but to be the new head coach at Florida Atlantic. It’s kind of like Napoleon being exiled to Elba, but with a state-funded pension plan. Steve Sarkisian replaced Kiffin for the CFP championship game, but after he left to become offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons he was succeeded by Brian Daboll and Mike Locksley.

Daboll, the former New England Patriots tight ends coach under Saban’s friend and former boss Bill Belichick, is the quarterbacks coach, so he’ll be the play caller. And Saban made the point of saying there would be more of a return to pro-style passing tendencies under the new regime, another subtle indication that he had grown weary of all things Kiffin.

We’ll find out a lot about Alabama when it opens against Florida State on Sept. 2 in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. If the rankings fall as expected, with Bama No. 1 and FSU No. 3, it could be the highest-ranked season-opening matchup ever.

It’ll be a huge test for the Crimson Tide and the Seminoles. But even if former Saban assistant Jimbo Fisher and FSU get the best of Bama, it would be foolish for anyone around the SEC to get their hopes up too much.

Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.​