Alabama shows it simply 'knows how to win' with resilient comeback at LSU
BATON ROUGE, La. – Nick Saban had a message for his players, for the press, and for the rest of the college football world.
He delivered those messages quite clearly, on a night when Alabama's place in the College Football Playoff looked quite murky.
The Tide basically fumbled away its season late in the fourth quarter here on Saturday, when T.J. Yeldon put the ball on the ground inside his own 10-yard-line in a tie game to give LSU at least three points if not seven.
Saban turned to anyone who would listen and said, "This is where you show you know how to win."
Then came a red-zone stand – holding LSU to three points – a breathless last-minute drive, a field goal, and overtime.
Saban repeated it: "This is where you show you know how to win."
Then came a brilliant Lane Kiffin play call, a go-ahead touchdown, and a game-ending defensive stop that had LSU coach Les Miles so incensed at the referees that he had to be held back by his school's sports information director.
Saban was unmoved through it all, of course. He strode into the cramped press room and called the game "Ol' fashioned ball."
He added a zinger:
"Nothing spread about that."
Saban and his team grabbed its spiraling season by the throat on Saturday, right about the time many were imagining a playoff without the Tide. Alabama would have been doomed had it lost to the Tigers, with two defeats and only one impressive win over a shaky Texas A&M team. Instead, it comes home to Tuscaloosa with a likely spot in the top four and a chance to move as high as second in the country with a win over unbeaten Mississippi State next weekend.
This is where the Tide showed they knew how to win, and they did it on the road, "where opponents' dreams come to die."
The Tide showed serious cool at a place and time when most opponents show fissures. Instead, it was LSU that came apart, first with a personal foul down by the goal line with a game-winning touchdown only six yards away in the last two minutes. Miles didn't complain about the penalty, but he admitted it "changed the complexion of the game."
So did the kickoff after the field goal, which skittered out of bounds for a penalty. So did a secondary that allowed Alabama quarterback Blake Sims to move the ball into chip-shot field goal range.
And so did LSU's head-scratching play-calling in overtime, as the Tigers went with four straight passes after riding the entire game on their rushing attack.
The more LSU seemed stunned, the more Alabama seemed sure.
"No nerves," Sims said after the game. "No nerves at all."
That's quite a statement considering how deafening it was down on the field. There will likely be no roar as hostile as that one for the rest of Alabama's season, and it was hardly an issue.
"He was ready," Amari Cooper said of his quarterback. "No fear in the guy."
That was made clear on the first play of overtime, as Sims shocked the Tigers with a throw over the middle to 304-pound tight end Brandon Greene, who nearly carried three defenders to paydirt before being brought down at the 1. Everyone in the stadium was thinking run to start the extra session, or maybe a throw to Cooper. Didn't happen.
"I was not expecting that call," Cooper said with a smile.
Kiffin had it ready. He seemed to have the entire two-minute offense ready as soon as the lead was surrendered. The pass to Greene had been practiced endlessly, and it sure looked rote – as if it was done on an empty field in August instead of in the din of November.
"After the field goal, we were ready for overtime," Cooper said matter-of-factly. "We believe. That's what our program is all about."
This is what makes Alabama Alabama, and makes the SEC the SEC. It is bruising, sometimes ugly football. There are not many style points, or any kind of points for that matter. That deludes some into thinking the league is overrated or mediocre. But if you put a TCU or Oregon in Death Valley and force them to tackle LSU's rushers 56 times over the course of four painful, corndog-scented hours, you're going to get some serious stress on the system. All but a few teams will wilt just like Ole Miss did two weekends ago.
"We were built to beat a team like LSU," Saban said. All the gassers and weights in the dead of summer were aimed toward this chilly night, where "you better butt the guy in the throat," Saban said.
Asked if he prefers it that way, he said, "I love it."
So do his players.
"This is the SEC," said center Ryan Kelly. "This is football to me. This is how I played high school. This is all I've ever known about football."
Saban spoke of resiliency, and you'll note that's been a hallmark of Florida State as well. What Alabama did Saturday night looked a whole lot like what the 'Noles did against Auburn in the BCS title game – and what Auburn did against Alabama last season in the Iron Bowl. Resiliency is not a statistic for review by the playoff committee, but near losses can be more impressive than big wins. Any team can look good when the plan comes together from the opening kickoff, but how many teams win when the plan changes with a minute to go on the road?
Saban was asked after the game about Miles' decision to go for a field goal to take the late lead instead of trying for a touchdown. He didn't seem to appreciate the question.
"The difference between what you have to do and what I have to do and what Les Miles has to do is that all our decisions are final, and we have to live with the consequences," Saban said. "Everybody else gets to second-guess everything we do, and everything we do that doesn't work, is a bad decision."
It was prickly, but it was another example of his preparation: he knows a game in Death Valley is going to come down to a decision, or a play. He accepts the finality of it. He embraces it. His players do, too.
Some team out there is going to have to finish off Saban and his team. It could be Mississippi State next week in Tuscaloosa. It could be an SEC East team in Atlanta. It could be Florida State in Arlington. Just know that there will come a moment in that game when Alabama will show it knows how to win, and somebody is going to have to show it knows how to end the Tide's season.