Alabama Wins 6th Championship in Saban Era

The Crimson Tide's best season is one that shouldn't have been played.

I predicted many times this summer that there would be no 2020 college football season. Most universities had shifted to virtual instruction because of the pandemic and it seemed inconceivable that we would ask football players to come to campus. Several major conferences in fact canceled their seasons. But, under pressure from coaches, players, and fans—and the fact that the Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference were going to play come Hell or high water—they ultimately uncanceled.

The season probably shouldn’t have been played. Lots of coaches and student-athletes from lots of schools contracted the virus. While none died that I know of, some doubtless suffered permanent damage to their health.

Even from a competitive balance standpoint, tons of games were canceled. The Ohio State team that lost to my Alabama Crimson Tide last night dominated most of the games they played; but they only played a 5-game regular season compared to Alabama’s 10.

All that said, it was just an incredible season for Alabama. They absolutely dominated an all-SEC schedule, winning 10 conference games in the regular season and an 11th in the SEC Championship game against Florida.* Then they went on to beat two great teams, Notre Dame and Ohio State, in the Playoff.

This, despite a COVID scare involved their head coach and then an actual COVID case involving their head coach, Nick Saban, that kept him out of a key rivalry game. And a reshuffling of their schedule to deal with other teams’ COVID issues that took away a bye week heading into the conference championship game.

We moved to Alabama just after the last of the Bear Bryant championships and I wasn’t a follower of those teams. I was in my first year of grad school at Alabama when the 1992 team won the first-ever SEC Championship Game and then clobbered Miami to win the national championship, going 13-0 in what was the teams 100th season. And I’ve cheered on five previous national championship teams under Saban. But this one was the most special.

Not only because of the bizarre circumstances that they had to manage all year, which was incredible in its own right. But they also overcame a freak injury that took out arguably their best player, wide receiver Jaylen Waddle, in the opening kickoff of the Tennessee game in week 5 and continued to dominate. They also lost the nation’s best center, Landon Dickerson, in the closing moments of the SEC Championship and had to face Notre Dame and Ohio State without him. (Saban did put him in for the final, kneel-down snaps of the National Championship game, which was a great touch.)

Their number two wideout, DeVonta Smith, wound up winning the Heisman Trophy and three other postseason awards. Their quarterback, Mac Jones, came seemingly out of nowhere—he wasn’t even expected to hold on to the starting job—to finish third in the Heisman balloting but to set all sorts of records and win the two quarterbacking awards and consensus first team All-America honors. Their top running back, Najee Harris, somehow finished only fifth in the Heisman balloting despite breaking multiple SEC records and taking home the award for the nation’s top running back.

Saban’s six titles at Alabama would tie him with Bryant for the most in major college football history. He had previously won one at Louisiana State, so he now holds the record by himself.

ESPN’s Andrea Adelson (“College Football Playoff: Alabama’s title felt both impossible and undeniable“):

At the end of a long, grueling, strange, uncomfortable season for college football, we finally got a small piece of normalcy as the final seconds ticked off the clock Monday night at Hard Rock Stadium: Alabama, hoisting yet another national championship trophy after winning in dominant, historic fashion.

Only a few spectators were left to see the celebration, a small fraction of the roughly 14,000 fans allowed into the facility considering all the restrictions in place. In any other year, the field is mobbed with friends, family, media, photographers, event personnel in a grand celebration that runs 10 deep along the makeshift stage. On Monday night, a solitary player did snow angels in the fallen confetti as teammates hugged only team personnel.

Alabama winning it all felt like the inevitable ending, of course, as the most dominant coach in the sport put together the most dominant team with the most dominant players. For those just tuning in Monday to the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T against Ohio State, believing they might just see a competitive game, they saw exhibit No. 13 showcasing why the Buckeyes simply had no chance.

There was Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith owning Ohio State so completely, he snatched multiple title game records before halftime and would have shattered more had he not dislocated a finger on his right hand. There was running back Najee Harris, bulldozing through the Buckeyes with such force, their collective wills inevitably broke. Leading it all was quarterback Mac Jones, orchestrating yet another nearly flawless offensive performance while, yes, setting his own championship records along the way.

The Crimson Tide could not be stopped during the season. They could not be stopped in a 52-24 championship-winning performance that no one will soon forget.

“To me, this team accomplished more almost than any team,” said Alabama coach Nick Saban, who won a record seventh national title. “Played 13 games, went undefeated with all the disruption that we had in this season. I think there’s quite a bit to write about when it comes to the legacy of the team.”

This Alabama team will have its special place in history, and rightfully so. What this team accomplished goes beyond the points and the fancy stats and the Heisman. Players across the sport sacrificed more than they ever have; they endured more than they ever have; they were challenged both physically and mentally in ways that remain hard to grasp.

They played football during a pandemic.

It might not sink in how remarkable this season truly was until much later, perhaps years down the road, with time to reflect on the extraordinary circumstances in which it all came about.

“It was an unprecedented year with a lot of adversity,” Alabama offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood said. “But we just stayed the course. Tried to stay focused and took everything day by day and really got everybody bought in and locked into what we wanted to achieve — and we came out victorious.”

Ohio State pushed for this opportunity too, believing it also had a championship-caliber team with Justin Fields leading the way. Though the Buckeyes started their season later than Alabama, they dealt with myriad coronavirus issues to get to this point — and even discussed whether to postpone this championship game because they had more COVID-19 woes over the past week.

That all speaks to the uncertainty that filled this season. Nobody truly knew whether college football would make it to the finish line, as coaches basically told anyone who would listen, “You’re only as good as your last test.” The season felt precarious every day, with coaches, players and trainers holding their breath awaiting coronavirus test results.

That only heightened the strain on players as they did their level best to follow all the safety protocols to keep playing. As teams across the SEC dealt with outbreaks, and Saban dealt with coronavirus himself, only one team truly felt like a sure thing: Alabama, thanks to Smith, Harris, Jones and everyone else. Yes, there were a few close calls along the way. But this is a team that failed to score 40 or more points only twice and had three players finish in the top five for the Heisman — and you could make a very real case today they should have finished 1-2-3.

This does not just happen by accident, of course. Saban recruits the best players then develops the best players. But this type of offensive performance wasn’t preordained, either. Saban saw the shifting landscape in college football to wide-open, score-at-will offenses and shifted with it — reinventing the Crimson Tide into an unstoppable offensive force. Consider the first two times he won a national championship with Alabama: The Tide scored a combined 58 points — just six more than where they ended up Monday night.

Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian once again called a masterful game. Knowing full well Smith would be keyed on every play, he put Smith in new and different formations to get him the ball. But most of the time, Smith just got behind the Ohio State defenders and outran them. By the time the first half was over, Smith had 12 catches for 215 yards and three touchdowns, broke three SEC career records, set a BCS/CFP championship game record, tied another and set a school bowl record.

“He does a really good job of calling a game,” Saban said of Sarkisian. “He knows what the other team is doing, knows how to attack it, knows where to put the players to put them in position to be able to make those plays against what the other team is doing. He has just done a fantastic job this year.”

Jones, meanwhile, threw for 464 yards — breaking Joe Burrow’s BCS/CFP championship record and tying Burrow’s passing touchdown record with five.

One year after college football experts declared Burrow’s LSU squad the greatest offense of all time, Alabama made its own claim to that crown. None of that should come as a shock. Alabama missed the playoffs a year ago and watched the division rival Tigers roll through everyone in similar fashion. Did anyone think Saban would simply be fine with that?

Jones, who hobbled on a bruised leg for a good chunk of Monday’s second half and still delivered one perfectly placed pass after another, took it a step further than declaring Alabama the greatest offense.

“I think we’re the best team to ever play,” Jones said. “There’s no team that will ever play an SEC schedule like that again. But at the same time, we’re just so happy to win this game and put the icing on the cake. There was not a lot of pressure; we just wanted to go out there and play the game we’ve all been playing since we were 5 years old.”

Despite all the unknowns about how this season would unfold, the Crimson Tide committed to each other.

“We had a mission,” Smith said. “Everybody wanted to end things the right way. We just all came to work every day and just put in the work. We got the result that we wanted.”

And ultimately, the result that we could all see coming.

AL.com’s Joseph Goodman, like me a skeptic that we should have played these games at all (“Nick Saban’s ‘ultimate team’ was the toughest we’ve ever seen“):

There will be other great teams. There will never again be one that fought like this Alabama Crimson Tide.

They fought through a pandemic to win a national championship, and they fought through a schedule of 11 games against SEC opponents and never lost. Is this team the best ever? Who really knows, but we know for a fact that those two things have never and probably will never be done again.

Fighters, Alabama coach Nick Saban called them. Warriors, he said after the 52-24 victory against Ohio State in the College Football Playoff national championship on Monday night at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. That’s 18 national titles for Alabama and a record seven for Saban, but this one was different from all the rest.

Saban said he was at a loss for words for how to describe his love for this team, but he kept repeating one superlative phrase over and over and over again.

“To me, this is the ultimate team,” Saban said.

If there’s something better than best ever for a coach, it is that. If you’re going to pass Paul Bryant for the most national championships by a coach, then you do it with a team the Bear would have tipped his houndstooth hat to honor.

At 13-0 and with an offense for the ages, this probably was Saban’s best team. It was without question his favorite, and that means something more after this season.

“Perseverance,” Saban said. That’s what defined a team that everyone else will now try to define as one of the greatest of all time. Here’s the thing about “best” and “greatest,” though. In this sport, there is something so much more valuable.

Any number of teams will claim “best ever” status. This team was the toughest, and they have the scars and the stars to prove it.

ESPN’s Ryan McGee (“Why is Nick Saban smiling? The answer goes beyond the Bama coach winning another title“):

“I enjoyed the ride!”

Alabama head coach Nick Saban, his 69-year-old face looking downright cherubic, was specifically talking about the lift he had just received, as he was carried him across the field of Hard Rock Stadium like a sack of potatoes on the right shoulder of 6-foot-6, 324-pound Landon Dickerson, celebrating their 52-24 victory against Ohio State in the College Football Playoff National Championship.

But what he was really describing, and what his tickled facial expression was illustrating, was much more than simply a tender moment shared with a burly offensive lineman. Saban was talking about the entirety of his 2020 college football experience. Somehow, amid this most unpredictable, unsettling and unnerving of college football’s 151 seasons, he has seemed to enjoy this one the most.

Sure, it’s easy to enjoy life when you are in the process of winning your seventh national championship as a head coach, surpassing Crimson Tide demigod Bear Bryant for the most titles in history. And it isn’t difficult to bask in the glory of what is arguably the most impressive one-year college football résumé ever written, running the table on an all-SEC regular-season schedule and defeating the only other two programs with a place at the “greatest program ever” table, Notre Dame and Ohio State … all while producing three of the top five Heisman vote-getters and topping the offensive output (48.5 points per game) of even the historic LSU Tigers champions of one year ago.

However, that glow emanating from Saban late Monday night and well into early Tuesday morning — this was different. Coaching legends don’t smile. They don’t beam. They don’t grin. They scowl. From Bryant and Woody Hayes to Urban Meyer and John Heisman, the College Football Hall of Fame is a portrait gallery of men who look like their underwear is three sizes too small. Grimaced perfectionists all, too busy worrying about the one play that was run incorrectly to enjoy the 60 that were.

Saban has long been as worthy to stand among them as his win-loss record, always willing to discuss the two national title games he lost in much greater detail than the pile he won. But now his display at the Hall might end up looking like an ad for teeth-whitening strips. It’s not that he never smiled before the fall of 2020. It’s that no one can remember him smiling this much for this long, certainly not at the times of day and at certain moments in games and in nearly every spot on the clock of game days. And he’s done it this entire season.

“Oh, he’s definitely different, but in good ways,” said Alabama quarterback Mac Jones, who threw for 464 yards and five touchdowns against Ohio State. Jones has been in Tuscaloosa for four years, experiencing Saban at his snarling motivational best and heartbroken championship-lost worst. “I don’t see how anyone on any team who has gone through what we have this year, what every team has this year, couldn’t be different in good ways. I don’t know if most people are smiling more, but he sure is.”

“I don’t know if I’m smiling more, I really don’t,” Saban said around 1 a.m. ET Tuesday, nearing the end of a gantlet of postgame interviews. And yes, he was smiling when he said it. “But I do think that when you have something taken away from you, as we did when it came to spring practice and our normal summer and early fall routines, or you have the potential to have something taken from you, the cloud we lived under all season long, then I think that has to make you appreciate it more. We all love this game, but when it’s all you do, you start thinking it’s always going to be there. Then when it isn’t, it’s only natural that you pause to appreciate it more when you get it back.”

That cloud never went away. The constant pandemic threat of the season abruptly ending or being pulled out of practice for a positive COVID-19 test, it wore on everyone in the sport, whether they realized it or not. That background stress was fueled by life in the football bubble, student-athletes forgoing a large part of the “student” half of that title, their lives limited to online classes and football with zero semblance of a social life, including in-person contact with loved ones. That fear bottomed out when Saban himself tested positive prior to the Oct. 17 top 5 showdown with Georgia. He eventually made it to that game when the test turned out to be a false positive, but five weeks later he tested positive again and missed the Iron Bowl.

Saban, who has always conjured up ways to keep his team groupthink as positive as possible, made sure to do whatever he could to be a wind against the cloud of 2020.

“A lot has been asked of these players, and they are extremely high-strung right now, so he has to be more laid back,” Greg McElroy explained a few hours before Monday night’s kickoff. The ESPN college football analyst was the quarterback on Saban’s first Alabama title-winning team in 2009 and had been asked about the surly Saban of then versus the smiley Saban of now.

“He has always done that,” McElroy said. “When we were feeling good about ourselves, he would rip us to shreds and tell us how awful we were. When we were feeling terrible about ourselves, he would build us up. ‘You guys are doing things the right way. We can get better today.’ He would find a way to balance you out. This team has had to deal with so much externally, he’s helped them find a way to calm down and work their way through an incredibly difficult season.”

Just last week, Jones and wide receiver DeVonta Smith were sitting next to a Heisman Trophy, both finalists for college football’s most prestigious individual award. Television cameras were pointed at them in an empty room of the Alabama football facility. They were mere minutes away from one player winning the trophy and the other losing it. It was awkward. Then, Saban came strolling in and said through his mask, “If you guys are going to fight over this, let’s get on with it.” The duo instantly cracked up.

“He does that all the time now,” Smith recalled Monday night. “He knows when to get on us to make us better, but he also knows when to make us laugh.”

Has he always known when to make you laugh?

“Um …” The fourth-year Tide wide receiver, Heisman winner and National Championship Offensive MVP paused to think and then broke up laughing. “No, not really. That’s why we all appreciate it so much now.”

Saban appreciates a lot about his own life more than he did before 2020. Most do, thanks to the universal time bandit that has been the coronavirus pandemic. Being the greatest college football coach to ever wear a whistle around their neck certainly doesn’t make one immune to those feelings. Nick Saban has always loved his family, but when he was sent home in March, quarantining with that family turned into an extended edition of the time he always coveted most: chilling with his beloved wife, Miss Terry, and their children and grandchildren. But that time was always limited to only a couple of phone-interrupted weeks before diving headlong into preseason media days, fall practice and recruiting, always recruiting.

The extra time spent at home this spring, paired with the possibility of no fall football season, made the crusty old coach trade in his well-worn readers for a pair of rose-colored glasses.

“It’s easy to be positive when it’s a group like this one,” he said Monday night. “When the best players on your team are also the best people, it always makes for an enjoyable team to coach. And back in August, when we told these guys that the team who best handled this most unique challenge of 2020 would be the team that would win a national championship, those players and people didn’t even blink. They just went to work. It’s easy to smile and develop a special bond with a group like that.”

It isn’t just a bond. It’s a connection Saban believes will connect this group for the remainder of their lives. In other words, it’s love. He said as much as he stood atop the stage during the SEC championship celebration on Dec. 19. When he looked down on his players and declared “I absolutely love this team, and I love all the adversity that they had to overcome, and …”

That team interrupted him with a sarcastic-yet-genuine chorus of “Awwwwww!”

Speaking of interruptions, running back Najee Harris interrupted himself when recalling the moment, saying with disbelief, “We were like, ‘Man, this dude, he does have feelings,'” and then catching himself in a fit of laughter as an Alabama staffer jokingly warned from the wings, “Easy there!”

See? Laughter. Smiles. Fun. All appearing so impossibly here in the kingdom of The Process and even more impossibly during this most serious of seasons. A season capped by the 69-year-old coach being carried through a rain of confetti by the player wearing No. 69, Landon Dickerson, his knee still searing with pain after tearing his ACL in the SEC championship game three weeks earlier. The lineman dressed out knowing he wouldn’t play. He was in his pads for nothing more than the pregame coin toss. But in the closing seconds of the long-ago iced victory, Saban grabbed Dickerson and sent him into the game to fire off the final clock-killing snap of the night.

Moments later, Saban was hoisted up onto Dickerson’s shoulder as the two trucked it across the turf into, finally, the finish of the 2020 college football season. It might very well have been the greatest season that any college football team has ever had. It was most certainly the season that will forever end any debate as to whether Nick Saban is the greatest college football coach there’s ever been. Both couldn’t stop laughing and smiling.

“I enjoyed the ride!”

Ultimately, while we probably shouldn’t have played this season, I’m glad that we did. It was one for the ages.

______________________

*Yes, I’m aware that the NCAA counts the conference championship games as part of the “regular season.” I don’t because it’s absurd to do so, given that one has to earn a spot in them.

FILED UNDER: Sports
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Tyrell says:

    Congratulations to the Tide, players, and Coach Saban. Thank goodness that we don’t have to just sit around reminiscing about past greatness, it is happening right in front of us.
    Overall, a great football season.

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  2. Michael Cain says:

    Read a piece yesterday bemoaning the fact that schools in the Mountain and Pacific time zones were becoming irrelevant at the top level in college football. I was curious and looked up the schools with the most NCAA team titles across all Div 1 sports and both genders. Looking at the 40 schools with the most titles, the western time zones are doing just fine. Among those 40, the Pac-12 clearly has the most titles of the major conferences. They just don’t have religion about football like the South and Midwest.

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  3. CSK says:

    @Michael Cain:
    Well, recall what one of Saban’s fans said about him: He may not be God, but he’s very close to being God.

  4. al Ameda says:

    Nick Saban is the greatest college football coach of all time.
    Yes, he recruits the best talent, but he knows what to do with, how to best utilize that talent.

    By the way, all of this is very reminiscent of John Wooden’s basketball dynasty at UCLA – from 1964 to 1975, ten national championships in 12 years, 7 consecutive at one point.

    Congrarulations to Alabama and Nick Saban.

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