Why this Alabama championship season should be considered Nick Saban’s best
USA TODAY Sports’ George Schroeder looks ahead to the 2016 college football season, including who is the favorite to win in it all next season. USA TODAY Sportsthere is parity, where you have to change quarterbacks every other year, kids come and go, kids transfer. It’s just a different world of college football. It speaks volumes to his coaching ability. Nobody realizes how much mental effort and execution and ideas this guy puts into it. He lives, sleeps, breathes football.”
In the ultimate evolution sport, leave it to Saban to come to terms with what this Alabama team had to be and what it needed to reach the championship after its ugly September loss to Ole Miss.
It was undeniable on that night that Saban had been through a rough stretch by his standard. The Crimson Tide had been under .500 in its previous nine games against top-20 teams. Alabama was finding itself more and more in shootout-type games against the Auburns and Texas A&Ms, which forced Alabama out of its traditional recipe of dominating defense, ball control and a conservative passing attack.
Sure, Saban had hired Lane Kiffin, brought in some up-tempo elements and generally accepted that football was being played differently. But there’s a reason great championship runs like the one Alabama was on between 2009 and 2012 are historically impossible to sustain. The game evolves, competitors change, it gets harder and harder to keep winning.
As talented as Alabama is, this was probably the sixth-best team out of Saban’s nine years. It’s clearly behind 2011, 2009 and 2012 and probably behind 2010, the underachiever that lost three games but had perhaps Saban’s most talented roster. You can even make an argument Alabama was better in 2013 when it was on the verge of going 12-0 and likely playing for a national title until Auburn’s Kick Six miracle.
Which makes it all the more impressive — and a bit scary for the rest of college football — that Saban turned this team into a champion.
“This team, I really wanted to do the best I could do for this team, probably as much as any team I’ve ever coached,” Saban said. “We didn’t always play pretty in this game. It probably wasn’t one of our best games when it just comes to flat execution. But when it comes to competing and making plays when we needed to make them, it was probably as good as it gets.”
Understand that in Saban’s three previous national championship appearances at Alabama, the games were well in hand by the fourth quarter and followed the formula of physical superiority, fewer mistakes and grind-you-down clock management with the lead. Everything about those games felt inevitable, right down to Saban passing the trophy and making some comment about getting back out on the road recruiting..
But there was nothing inevitable about this season or this game, and it took everything Alabama had to survive both, including Saban’s acceptance that sometimes the Crimson Tide simply has to win a different way. Instead of grousing about tempo or scoring defense and trying to play the game on his terms, Saban has figured out that Alabama can win playing Clemson’s game, too.
“I think you have to in this day and age of football,” Smart said. “There are so many run-pass option plays, so many plays to trick the defense that people are going to put better numbers up. To do what we did against Michigan State is a bit of a misnomer. It just doesn’t happen anymore. People score points, especially teams with athletic quarterbacks. You have to be able to hold them under their averages and you have to score on offense.”
And sometimes you have to take risks.
Saban’s onside kick decision with 10:34 remaining in a 24-24 game will go down as an all-time gutsy move given the fact that Alabama — had it failed — would have given the ball to a red-hot Deshaun Watson at midfield and likely fallen behind.
It’s unfair to say Saban wouldn’t have taken that kind of risk in another year with another team. But back then, he didn’t have to, which is kind of the point.
“I guess you could say he’s a conservative coach in a sense, but he knows the athletes he has on the field,” running back Kenyan Drake said. “He won’t ever call a play we’ve never practiced before, and we gameplanned all week that if (Clemson lined up a certain way), we can easily pooch it over his head. He has the confidence in us to make the plays, and we have to execute it and everything happened as we planned it. In my opinion it was the most important play of the game.”
That Alabama could win a championship game while giving up 550 yards, and while its Heisman Trophy running back Derrick Henry was limited to 30 yards in the second half, almost seems like a set of circumstances from another planet.
Monday showed this isn’t the same old Alabama. It’s simply the same, and maybe more impressive, result.