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Fighting the law: Alabama’s defense on championship night

I apply my own law to big college football games: The offense-defense matchup which gains a much smaller portion of the pregame buzz is the matchup which will more centrally decide the contest.

This law was set aside in the Orange Bowl playoff semifinal, when the confrontation between Oklahoma’s offense and Clemson’s defense — the centerpiece of that game — figured to be the decisive matchup… and was.

Why did I view OU’s offense versus Clemson’s defense as the bigger matchup in the Orange Bowl?

In a single word, history.

Oklahoma played in the 2001 and 2005 Orange Bowls for national titles. The Sooners played Nick Saban in the 2004 Sugar Bowl for the national championship. They returned to Miami for the 2009 BCS National Championship Game against Florida. They brought great quarterbacks into those games: Josh Heupel (2001), Jason White (2004 and 2005), and Sam Bradford (2009).

None of those quarterbacks were ever able to score even 20 points. Not once.

Baker Mayfield couldn’t do the same against Clemson. The pattern of history under the same coach (Bob Stoops) was upheld.

We have a similar situation in the national title game, only from the side of success, not failure.

Here’s what I mean by that:

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As I said at The Comeback over the weekend, Nick Saban is not just 4-0 in national title games; his defenses play lights-out ball on this stage. Saban’s 2003 LSU team and his three national title teams at Alabama have played eight halves in national title games. Only one of those eight halves — the second half of the 2010 BCS National Championship Game against Texas — could be seen as a deficient defensive half. The other seven halves were extremely good at the very least, excellent at their greatest heights.

In 16 quarters of national championship games, Saban’s defenses have pitched shutouts in a majority of quarters (nine). When you realize that Notre Dame’s two touchdowns in the 2013 BCS title game were both garbage touchdowns (Alabama led by 35 points when each of those two touchdowns were scored), that number could be elevated to 11, albeit unofficially.

More about Saban’s defenses and the scoreboard in national championship games: If you look solely at the number of second-half touchdowns allowed by his defenses which have enabled opponents to create deficits smaller than seven points, you won’t find many.

Oklahoma scored a touchdown to create a seven-point deficit against LSU in the 2004 Sugar Bowl (21-14). Therefore, that score doesn’t quite make the cut. Only once has an opponent scored a second-half touchdown against a Saban-coached defense in a national championship game when that touchdown has created a deficit smaller than seven points: Texas scored against Alabama in 2010 to create a 24-21 deficit.

Saban’s defenses have been that consistent, that airtight, that reliable.

Clemson and Deshaun Watson, your challenge is easy to put into words, but it will be hard to put into action: Can you score on Alabama’s defense, especially if the game is close in the second half?

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With Oklahoma, a pattern of historical failure in big games put the pressure on the Sooners’ offense to succeed, and Baker Mayfield could not.

With Alabama, Clemson’s latest opponent is defined not by historical failure, but by historical success. Just the same, it means that the sexy matchup — the one everyone is talking about (more than the other one) — is likely to be the more important matchup.

So much for my law.

Clemson’s second game in the College Football Playoff — the last game of a long season — once again fights the law of matchup centrality in defining college football contests. We’ll see how the Tigers are able to fare against a Nick Saban defense with immortality up for grabs.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

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