Savvy Saban seals legend with third ring

NEW ORLEANS – Perhaps we should have known Sunday morning, when Nick Saban was both witty and relaxed in his final news conference before he undressed Les Miles.

Nick Saban decided to put the Tide's title chances in the hands of his quarterback, and it paid off.
(US Presswire)

Saban doesn’t do witty and relaxed very often. Maybe once every lunar eclipse. When Saban was making jokes, that might have been the clue that his team was absolutely locked and loaded to take down LSU.

What the Crimson Tide did to the top-ranked Tigers was no joke. The rematch was a mismatch. A beatdown. A complete reversal of the taut, 9-6 loss in Tuscaloosa in November. This 21-0 anticlimax was nowhere near as close as the score.

Alabama didn’t just outhit LSU. It was able to outwit LSU as well.

Saban always is difficult to beat in rematch situations; this victory makes him 7-1 at Alabama in the next meeting with a team that defeated the Crimson Tide, and he was 8-1 in such games while the coach at LSU from 2000-04. But this one might be his payback Picasso, a masterpiece of preparation, alteration and focus.

At the least, it equals the 2009 SEC championship game vengeance his Tide wreaked upon Tim Tebow and Florida. But this one was for the crystal football.

“How bad do you want to finish?” Saban asked his team before the game. “What’s your effort going to be, your enthusiasm, your excitement to play in the game, the toughness that you’re willing to play with, all the intangibles.”

The tangibles were in Alabama’s favor as well. This was a matchup of teams with similar talent, but one had a superior game plan.

Saban and offensive coordinator Jim McElwain, who already has been hired as coach at Colorado State, had the courage to shift their strategy away from a heavy reliance on tailback Trent Richardson, putting the burden on previously inconsistent sophomore quarterback AJ McCarron.

“I was very thankful,” McCarron said of his reaction when he knew the game plan was going to largely fall on his shoulders. “We’ve been leaning on No. 3 [Richardson] all year. He’s our workhorse. I mean, he’s been our main guy. We knew coming into the game somebody else had to step up, and coach just gave me an opportunity.”

McCarron attempted a career-high 34 passes – all of them in the first three quarters, and 25 of them in the first half. The first-down reliance on McCarron was especially striking: He threw on Alabama’s initial nine first downs of the game, and 20 of the Tide’s first 22 first downs. I’m not even sure Houston threw that much on first down this season.

[Video: Alabama’s McCarron, teammates revel in victory]

Saban said film study showed that LSU put eight men in the box on first downs. And self-evaluation showed the Tide coaches that they played into the hands of that defense in the first meeting.

“We felt like in the first game, we should have thrown the ball more on first down in our sort of assessment of ourselves,” Saban said. “We knew we were going to have to throw the ball on first down to take advantage of that circumstance and situation. … I’ve always trusted AJ, and I believe in him. And I don’t mind putting the ball in his hand so he has an opportunity to make those plays, as long as he makes good choices and decisions about what he does with it.”

AJ McCarron proved he could make the plays his team needed to win a championship.
(Getty Images)

McCarron’s decisions were nearly flawless. Using play-action to freeze LSU’s linebackers and defensive backs, he accurately dealt the ball to a host of receivers. Initially, the tight ends were the focus: Eight of his first 12 targets were tight ends. Then he started to cut loose with longer throws to his wide receivers.

The result was 23 completions, 234 yards and zero interceptions. On a night when Richardson had just 55 yards through three quarters, McCarron was the offensive star.

“He’s really come on strong,” said tight end Brad Smelley, who caught a game-high seven passes. “He’s become a leader on offense.”

LSU got no such leadership from its quarterback, senior Jordan Jefferson. He had a horrible game, throwing for just 53 yards and rushing for 15. He fumbled two snaps on third down, threw an interception, appeared flustered much of the time and did not guide the Tigers past midfield until the fourth quarter.

LSU finished with a pitiful five first downs and 92 total yards while becoming the first championship-game shutout victim in the BCS era.

Tigers coaches talked all week about their confidence in backup quarterback Jarrett Lee and predicted he probably would play, but that clearly was empty gamesmanship.

The quarterback meltdown and overall offensive ineptitude means that despite an often-brilliant 13-1 season, the old questions about Miles’ coaching acumen will bubble back up. In fact, they started mere minutes after the game.

[Yahoo! Sports Radio: Alabama’s Brad Smelley: Defense overwhelming]

The first question for Miles in the postgame news conference came from New Orleans radio host Bobby Hebert, the former NFL quarterback and father of LSU offensive lineman T-Bob Hebert. It wasn’t so much a question as an unprofessional rant.

“Coach, did you ever consider bringing in Jarrett Lee, considering that you weren’t taking any chances down the field?” Hebert asked Miles, just getting warmed up. “Now, I know Alabama’s defense is dominant. But, come on, that’s ridiculous, five first downs. I mean, so it’s almost an approach, I’ll tell you from the fans’ standpoint, that how can you not maybe push the ball down the field and bring in Jarrett Lee? So what if you get a pick-six. … I know the pass rush of Alabama, but there’s no reason why, five first downs – you have a great defense, LSU is a great defense, but that’s ridiculous.”

That’s when the moderator interrupted Hebert to ask if, you know, there might actually be a question in there somewhere.

“That’s the question,” Hebert said. “Do you think you should have pushed the football more down the field?”

Miles, who has famously thick skin, answered matter-of-factly. He said there were plays called to get the ball downfield, but the ball was not delivered there. And he said that the less-mobile Lee would not have stood a chance against the carnivorous Alabama pass rush.

Alabama's defense constantly pummeled LSU QB Jordan Jefferson and the Tigers did nothing to change it.
(US Presswire)

Hebert apparently was unmoved by that explanation. After the news conference, he told the Lake Charles (La.) American Press, “It’s like ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ The clock struck midnight on the Mad Hatter.”

But as deserving as Miles and his offensive staff are of criticism, nobody should overlook the maniacal defensive effort of the Crimson Tide. Their tackling, coverages, schemes and execution were nearly flawless.

“They are a hateful bunch,” Saban said admiringly, “and they are as competitive as you can ever imagine.”

So is their coach.

[Wetzel: Awful title game fitting end to bad season]

Saban now has won three national championships, the most in the BCS era. He’s now the unquestioned king of active college football coaches, and in Alabama lore, only Bear Bryant stands taller. (You can save the arguments on behalf of old-timers Wallace Wade and Frank Thomas.) If he sticks around a while longer, there probably will be more crystal footballs for the school’s trophy case.

But there might not be another one with Saban’s fingerprints on it that was earned more impressively than this. His Crimson Tide rendered this rematch a mismatch.

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Pat Forde is Yahoo! Sports’ national college columnist. He is an award-winning writer, author and commentator with 25 years experience in newspapers and online. Follow him on Twitter. Send Pat a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Jan 10, 2012