The Process? Intact.
The Plan? Well, somewhere over the course of Alabama’s intense, nerve wracking, roller coaster of a victory, that got torn up and thrown out.
Because for all of us watching at home, speculating from the cheap seats, the formula for yet another Crimson Tide National Championship seemed fairly straightforward. Smother the Tigers with a defense that pitched a shutout in their semifinal game. Use a ferocious pass rush to contain, if not curtail, Clemson dual-threat QB Deshaun Watson. Avoid having to ask Jacob Coker to do to much. Build an early lead, and use Heisman winner Derrick Henry to run control the clock, and cement the victory.
So what happened? Naturally, the Tigers scored 40 points, with Deshaun Watson surpassing Vince Young’s record for total yards in a title game. And the mechanical, predictable, conservative Alabama attack? Obviously, they won the game with big plays: A 50 yard touchdown carry by Henry. Two 50+ yard TD catches by junior wideout O.J. Howard, who by the way had just two touchdowns in his college career to that point.
A 95 yard Kenyan Drake kickoff return for a score that proved critical in the game’s late stages.
And oh yeah, there was that game-changing onside kick that nobody, from Tuscaloosa to South Carolina, could possibly have seen coming.
Alabama is, above all things, predictable, and this was exactly the sort of turbulent, volatile, off-the-rails type of game that everyone figured might give them trouble. But that was the greatness of this latest iteration of the Crimson Tide Colossus. When the plan got chewed up, they simply put together a new one.
“We didn’t always play pretty in this game,” said newly minted five-time champion Head Coach Nick Saban following the victory, “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. I think that’s the kind of competitors that win championships, and that’s probably why we’re sitting here.”
What’s remarkable is that Saban sitting there, again, for the fourth time in seven years, still felt somewhat surprising.
After all, hadn’t we been told, again and again, that the era of Alabama had come to a close? Oh sure, the Tide was still capable of winning their share of games, but the invulnerable, impervious, immortal program, the teams that won championships simply as a matter of course? Those days, so the story went, were done, and a 43-37 loss to Ole Miss back in September seemed to confirm as much. That game, after all, was a lot like this one. Frantic, wide open, and determined by a few crazy bounces here and there. When the resurgent Rebels actually emerged with that victory, it appeared, for a moment, like a real SEC changing of the guard might actually be upon us. Until a much maligned, lightly regarded, “placeholder” QB steadied the ship.
“After the Ole Miss loss is when we saw Jake (Coker) step up the most,” explained Howard after the win, “He started becoming a leader, and he started showing determination on the field. He was running the ball and not sliding like a normal quarterback would. He was showing grit. Jake won the whole team over after the loss.”
“I think the coaching staff did a great job of helping these guys,” added Saban, “and the commitment that these guys made early in the season after the Ole Miss loss, to do all the things that they needed to do to be the kind of team that we could be, I can’t say enough about.”
As usual, the only real truism in sports analysis is that nobody knows anything, at least not as things are still unfolding. Only now, with the benefit of hindsight, can we see that the Tide dynasty wasn’t ending, it was simply evolving. Lane Kiffin, he of the late night airport tarmac dismissal, was brought in to breathe new life into the Alabama attack. And wouldn’t you know, just over two years later, Kiffin was once again scrambling for a trip home, this time so that he might slowly bask in the thrill of victory.
Given Kiffin’s soaring stock, and his already uncanny propensity for upward mobility, one assumes that he’ll be introduced as Head Coach of the Philadelphia Eagles by week’s end. (We’re kidding…. we think.) But between Kiffin, and new Georgia Head Coach Kirby Smart, Alabama may have two big holes to fill as they try to roll this momentum into a new season. Just don’t expect Saban to slow down his “Process” for a second.
“We start school on Wednesday,” he told media who inquired about his upcoming schedule after the game, “ so we have a meeting with the seniors at 2:00, and a meeting with the rest of the players that are coming back at 3:00. Not that we’re really going to start planning any strategy for next season already.”
No, of course not, that would be downright ludicrous. But did we mention that he’ll be back on the recruiting trail by Thursday?
And so the Alabama machine keeps humming right along. Their remarkable accomplishments, their ruthless efficiency, their unsettling certainty in a game filled with so many variables, will always be seen by some as cold, or even inhuman. It’s a perception that Saban himself is keenly aware of.
“Sometimes people criticize us and say we’re all business,” he admitted, “But I’m going to tell you what, there were more players in the locker room that played for us at Alabama at this game today than I’ll bet you anybody has ever had at a game, and that’s because they had a great experience at Alabama… We are trying to create value for players so that they can have a better chance to be successful.”
And where else, across the entire landscape of college football, could anyone possibly expect more success, than Saban’s Alabama? Monday’s championship ensured the continuation of a remarkable bit of continuity, as every single class that Saban has recruited since arriving at the school, has now taken home at least one National Championship. Is it any wonder why the stars of tomorrow, seeking that same consistency, will continue to file in? Will it really be a surprise if this return to the top snowballs into a few more titles, enabling Saban to actually pass Paul “Bear” Bryant?
This past season seemed to serve as proof positive that while the game may change, the tactics may shift, and the formula may be different, The Crimson Tide is still perfectly capable of keeping pace.
Alabama football, same as it ever was. Even when it looks very different.