Saban makes sure SEC’s not a repeat

ATLANTA – Back in Tuscaloosa, to one side of the walkway in front of Bryant-Denny Stadium, stand four statues of Crimson Tide coaching greats, including Gene Stallings and, of course, Bear Bryant.

Closest to the stadium there is a space set up for coach No. 5, an empty spot that’s served as a figurative gap in this storied program for more than a decade. Four different coaches tried to fill it. All failed, often disastrously. All they left was a powerhouse desperate for a leader.

Then came Saint Nick Saban three falls ago and if they want to sculpt an unlikely, if telling, image of the man, they might choose his flying hip/chest bump with Tide running back Mark Ingram conducted in the final seconds of his program’s masterpiece performance here Saturday.

“I don’t know what we were doing,” said Ingram, as surprised as anyone that a man generally known to be as fun as the flu would suddenly loosen up. “I didn’t know he’d do it. I saw him coming to me with a chest bump.”

Alabama 32, Florida 13, Tim Tebow tamed in tears and the Tide rolling onto Pasadena, Saban actually celebrating despite being 60 minutes from the ultimate glory.

This was a Saban special, a game won with discipline and defense, with straight power football and big players in position to make the big plays. The guy may not display much of a public personality (flying hip bumps aside) but if you need a winner, there isn’t anyone better on the college sidelines.

Fourteen times in his college coaching career, Saban has lost a game only to face the same team a year later. That includes these Gators from last season’s SEC title game. He’s now 13-1 in those “revenge” games, which means you might outcoach him once, but it isn’t happening twice.

There are no secrets to how he does it. This is no madcap genius. He doesn’t lay awake at night drawing up plays in his mind. He just rises early, goes to the office and expects everyone to already be there.

He’ll lay his system all out for you – winning football games, conference titles and national championships (as he did at LSU) requires “an undying relentlessness, a not-to-be-denied attitude.”

And that’s about it.

Saban is big on absolutes, particularly absolute commitment. He isn’t for everyone – only the strongest mentally can survive under him – be they players or university support staff. But to those who hang in go the spoils, in this case a confetti shower in the middle of the Georgia Dome.

“We had a meeting [last offseason and told the players] everything you do, every time you go to work, every time we lift weights, it’s not to be as good as the guy you’re playing against, it’s to be as good as the guy you have to beat to be the champion,” Saban said.

That meant a defense that would make the back-breaking, game-winning plays that Tebow had built his career on.

The Gators quarterback did it to the Tide last season, taking over the game in the fourth quarter. Saban didn’t use that memory as motivation, but as a lesson. Look at how Tebow plays, he told his team. Look at how Tebow competes, he kept pounding. Look at how Tebow prepares, he preached. Tebow is going to be there in the end, in Atlanta, in the way of a championship, so you have to be tougher, more committed, more relentless than him.

“Everybody bought into it,” Ingram said.

And with that, with Tebow indeed in the way, the whole script got flipped.

One year later, Alabama (13-0) was tougher while Florida imploded. There was no lack of talent in the Gators, just a lack of discipline and resolve.

It started with star defensive end, Carlos Dunlop, getting nailed with a DUI early Tuesday morning and being suspended for the game. Alabama responded by controlling the line, both in giving quarterback Greg McElroy time to throw, and opening the creases needed for running backs Ingram and Trent Richardson.

During the game Florida was assessed bad penalty after bad penalty – roughing the passer, unsportsmanlike conduct, offsides on a critical third-and-long. On defense they over-pursued and blew tackles. On offense they dropped passes. The Gator machine was off its wheels even before Tebow threw a fourth-quarter end zone interception that all but ended it.

No one doubted Alabama was capable of beating Florida. Few could’ve imagined the Gator side of the Dome filing out in dejection with still half the fourth quarter to play. This was complete domination.

“Coach Saban’s got a philosophy of hard work and discipline,” Ingram said. “And you can’t have self-indulgent behavior. It’s about doing everything you can, every chance you have, to make the team better.”

Saban admits he doesn’t have everyone completely committed (no coach could), but he has a “critical mass” now that not only sustains excellence but often propels programs to dominance. Heck, his players even sound like him now. It’s scary stuff for the rest of the country.

Saban had a juggernaut built at LSU before walking away to give the NFL a shot. The players he recruited won a second BCS title under Les Miles. Now that Saban is back in the college game, it’s like watching him build the same thing twice.

The way the Tide literally roll – play after play, tackle after tackle, effort after effort – would make the Bear himself smile. Even the Tide’s punter, P.J. Fitzgerald, made a critical, touchdown-saving, open-field tackle.

“You’ve got to be responsible and accountable and be able to do your job,” Saban said. “There’s a way you have to do it in terms of the effort, the toughness and the dependability and the discipline. … And when you have a critical mass of players on your ream that think like that, they really don’t want the other guys that don’t think that way to be out there with them.”

With that he can play straight line’em up and stuff-it-down-the-jugular football. Just execute. Just beat your man. It is old-school stuff, winning in this new day.

Against a Florida defense that allowed just nine touchdowns all season, the Tide marched up and down the field, wracking up 490 total yards and including a down-the-jugular 251 on the ground.

Everyone around Atlanta is confident that the Crimson Tide will win the BCS title next month. After all, the SEC champ has won the last three and no one in college football has looked better than the Tide did Saturday.

Saban, of course, won’t hear anything about that. He’ll likely have one of his celebratory Little Debbie snack cakes, sleep in tomorrow (maybe til 7) and then get to work.

He won’t expect the same from his assistants and players, he’ll demand it. The thing that makes Alabama great, the reason why this works, is that they’ll demand from themselves first.

That’s a Nick Saban program.

That’s Alabama football, then and now and forever as long as Saban is pacing the sideline and not a statue outside the stadium.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Saturday, Dec 5, 2009