Nick Saban's big dice roll will either cement legacy, or diminish it

TAMPA – With perhaps his greatest team, Nick Saban is taking his greatest gamble.

Changing offensive coordinators a week before the national championship game is an audacious move, one that underscores the complete authority Saban has at Alabama. We will find out Monday whether it’s his most brilliant calculated risk yet, or whether it was a mistake of monumental proportions.

For all of Saban’s deadly seriousness and buttoned-down approach, he has been willing to roll the dice in huge situations. There was, of course, the onside kick that was such a significant part of beating Clemson last year in the College Football Playoff national championship game. There also was a jaw-dropping fake punt early in the BCS championship game against Texas in 2010, a play that backfired but did not cost Saban a title.

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But removing Lane Kiffin and replacing him with Steve Sarkisian is a far bigger risk than either of those. Those were one-play gambles. This full-game gamble potentially alters every offensive play undefeated Alabama calls in the Clemson rematch Monday night.

This is Saban trifling with his own famed Process. A program constructed into a colossus by painstaking focus on daily details is suddenly remaking the building blocks. Coach Process is rejiggering his procedures – and doing it on the fly, before facing the best opponent the Crimson Tide has seen all season.

It takes some stones to do that. But will it work?

Will Nick Saban win his sixth national championship on Monday night?
Will Nick Saban win his sixth national championship on Monday night?

If Alabama wins, Saban will be hailed for making an ultimate boss move when 99 percent of the men in his position would have stood pat and rode out one more week with Kiffin, just hoping it doesn’t all fall apart on the biggest stage. He will be applauded for having the guts to do something radical in a sport where there is mortal fear of messing with a winning formula.

If Alabama loses, Saban will open himself to criticism for making what could be construed as a rash move based on ego or anger or control issues. He will be questioned about jeopardizing his juggernaut’s year-long title quest because he couldn’t find a way to work with his offensive coordinator for one more week. If Saban could tolerate Kiffin’s eccentricities for 43 games, why couldn’t he suck it up for a 44th?

That is the dramatic context as Saban attempts to take another step toward the summit of the all-time coaching mountain.

You can argue persuasively that he’s already there, with five national titles in 13 seasons (LSU 2003, Alabama 2009, ’11, ’12, ’15). With greater overall competition in college football now, Saban’s run is a modern miracle.

But Bear Bryant and his six clamed titles (1961, ’64, ’65, ‘73’ 78, ’79) loom not just over the college football record books, but over the campus in Tuscaloosa most of all. Saban might be the second-greatest college football coach ever, and the second-greatest in Alabama history.

(Note: Four of Bryant’s titles are contested in one form or another, and the ’73 title is nothing but a technicality. One of the major wire services, United Press International, nonsensically did its final voting before the bowl games were played, and Alabama lost to fellow unbeaten Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl that year. Saban’s first title, via the BCS at LSU, was split with Associated Press No. 1 USC. Long story short: Don’t complain about the current system; it used to be much worse.)

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, an Alabama native and alumnus, was asked Sunday about Saban’s dominance. His gushing was sincere.

“I mean, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Swinney said. “Obviously I grew up, Coach Bryant was a hero of mine, and everybody here knows about Coach Bryant. But with what Coach Saban has done, the amount of championships in the span of time with [85 maximum] scholarships, it’s just incredible. I really have no words, because it’s really hard to do. … To be able to regroup and create that edge and meet those challenges, continue to manage your staff and your roster and compete at the highest level, I mean, it’s just unbelievable what has happened.

“You know, he came there, obviously Alabama was kind of in a state of flux when he got there. But he has brought a system and a philosophy, and it didn’t take him long to get it in place. But he’s changed college football. I mean, he really has been a pioneer and changed a lot of the way things are done in college football, in building infrastructure, which I think are great, because now you have young people that have a lot more resources. They have a lot more people trying to help them be successful.

“Just incredible the run that they’ve had, no question.”

Clemson is the program positioned to stop the run Monday night. The Tigers played the Crimson Tide off their feet last year in the title game, with the margin of victory no wider than a perfectly timed and executed onside kick.

That was a big gamble. The one Nick Saban is taking now is far bigger.

The results of that gamble will either add another layer of luster to his legend, or take a chunk out of it. Monday night we will know.

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