Nick Saban is 4-0 in national championship games as a collegiate head coach. It is the most convincing reason to think the Alabama Crimson Tide will defeat the Clemson Tigers on Monday night in Glendale, Arizona.
Jimbo Fisher and Jim Harbaugh are legitimate superstar coaches in college football, but they have not yet scaled the heights reached by Saban and his former SEC adversary at Florida. Urban Meyer moved to 3-0 in national title games with Ohio State’s victory over Oregon in the first College Football Playoff National Championship Game a year ago. As the second playoff final arrives, only one man joins Meyer as a winner of multiple BCS titles. That is the same man who can join Meyer as one of the first two coaches to win the playoff championship. He’s the man who, like Meyer, has never lost a national title game in at least three appearances.
Nick Saban, plainly put, is a man in pursuit of history.
A third of a century after The Bear, Paul Bryant, coached his last game at Alabama, Saban has become The Hound, chasing down one accomplishment after another with the relentlessness of any great competitor. Let’s look at the four national championship victories Saban has orchestrated — once at LSU, thrice at Alabama:
2004 SUGAR BOWL: LSU 21, OKLAHOMA 14
The 2003 Oklahoma Sooners did get ambushed by Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship Game, but in the 12 games preceding that stumble, they fielded one of the most lethal and dynamic offenses college football had ever seen.
It’s true that Heisman Trophy winner Jason White was not fully healthy in the 2004 Sugar Bowl, but he still commanded an offense overflowing with all sorts of weaponry. Moreover, given LSU’s manifest limitations on offense, the Bayou Bengals needed their defense to stand tall. Merely being “good” probably wouldn’t have won the crystal football; LSU needed to be great against OU’s offense.
White completed just 13 of 37 passes for 102 yards. Oklahoma scored only 14 points and coughed up a touchdown on an LSU pick-six. The Sooners, a juggernaut for three whole months in the 2003 season, scored a net total of only seven points. LSU, despite only 14 points from its offensive unit, staged a celebration in the Superdome.
2010 BCS NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: ALABAMA 37, TEXAS 21
This is how great Alabama’s defenses have been under Saban in title games: Even when deficient, they still made the most defining plays of the proceedings. This was the case in 2010 against Texas.
Longhorn quarterback Colt McCoy was injured on UT’s fifth play from scrimmage. Backup Garrett Gilbert was shoved into action. When his shovel pass was plucked by Alabama’s Marcell Dareus for a pick-six just before halftime, Alabama’s defense had built a 24-6 lead. Saban’s defense was halfway home, headed toward another imposing championship-game performance.
Gilbert — in the aberrationally great sequence of his snake-bitten career — somehow rallied Texas to two second-half touchdowns. He developed a rapport with Colt McCoy’s favorite target, receiver Jordan Shipley and played the best 20 in-game minutes of his life. With nearly three minutes left, Texas had the ball, trailing 24-21. The Longhorns owned a chance to pull off one of the most remarkable comebacks college football had ever seen.
The Alabama defense, caught off balance for one and a half quarters, regained equilibrium just in time.
Eryk Anders delivered a strip-and-sack of Gilbert, and teammate Courtney Upshaw recovered the fumble at the Texas 3. Moments later, Alabama Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram punched the ball into the end zone to create a two score lead at 31-21. Another tack-on touchdown following a Texas turnover created the final margin of a complicated and confusing game.
Alabama — by historical standards and Saban’s own measurements — played below its capabilities on defense. Yet, that same defense either scored or set up more points (23) than Texas ultimately scored (21). Alabama’s offense produced 14 points on two reasonably long touchdown drives. All of Alabama’s other points either came from Dareus’s pick-six or drives which started inside the Texas 30.
Even on a comparatively flawed night, the Alabama defense was the foremost reason Saban won another national title, his first in Tuscaloosa.
2012 BCS NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: ALABAMA 21, LSU 0
In 2004, Nick Saban won a national title for LSU in New Orleans. Eight years later, The Hound deprived the Bayou Bengals of another Superdome victory dance.
The rematch of the 2011 LSU-Alabama regular season meeting — the 9-6 game which will acquire a long shelf life in college football history — was no contest at all. LSU had already beaten the Tide. Alabama had everything to prove after falling short against the Tigers two months earlier… and played like it.
Unlike the 2010 victory over Texas, there would be no second-half letdown for Alabama’s defense in this national title fight.
This was a 60-minute mauling in which LSU crossed midfield exactly once, and gained only 92 yards throughout the night. Had Alabama’s offense fared better in the red zone — the Tide settled for five field goals before scoring the game’s only touchdown late in the fourth quarter — Alabama might have beaten LSU by more than 40.
LSU was the best team in the 2011 regular season, but Alabama — elevated over Oklahoma State in the final BCS standings — made the most of its postseason opportunity.
2013 BCS NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: ALABAMA 42, NOTRE DAME 14
Alabama gave up 14 points to Notre Dame. Not one of those 14 points mattered.
Alabama put this game away just before halftime, as an A.J. McCarron touchdown pass built a 28-0 lead heading into the intermission. Alabama pushed that lead to 35-0 in the third quarter and coasted to a second straight title. Saban notched a back-to-back stack of national championships, something Meyer has not yet done in his own luminous career.
To underscore a point about Saban-coached defenses in title games, realize this: From the time Texas scored to trim its deficit to 24-21 in the 2010 natty, to the time Notre Dame scored a cosmetic third-quarter touchdown to break up Bama’s 35-0 shutout in 2013, Alabama’s defenses didn’t allow a point.
From the fourth quarter in January of 2010 to the third quarter in January of 2013, Alabama uncorked a 69-0 run in national championship games: 13 unanswered versus Texas, 21 versus LSU, 35 against the Fighting Irish.
The Hound of Tuscaloosa will now try to corral Clemson’s offense on the biggest of stages.
Want to bet against him? Do so at your own risk.