SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Nick Saban spoke with his arms folded tightly against his chest, hands gripping his arms, his body language signaling an inner angst he was trying to contain.
The best coach in college football history had just overseen the worst performance of his Alabama tenure, at the worst possible time. The Crimson Tide, ranked No. 1 all year and the defending national champion, had just unraveled to a stunning degree against Clemson in the College Football Playoff title game, losing 44-16. It was, by margin of defeat and size of the stakes, the biggest debacle of his 12 years at the school.
Without warning, the famed Saban Process became a paroxysm of incompetence. It sent the Alabama fans, who always laugh last and loudest, sullenly scurrying for the exits at Levi’s Stadium well before the game ended. And most of America, good and tired of squirming beneath the coach’s boot heel, bathed in the schadenfreude of the moment.
The prime elements of the meltdown:
Two interceptions by Heisman Trophy runner-up Tua Tagovailoa, who had thrown just four in the previous 14 games. The first of those picks – a recklessly blind throw into the flat – was returned 44 yards for a touchdown just 100 seconds into the game, setting an ominous tone for the night.
Six penalties for 60 yards, some of them at acutely costly times.
An utterly futile fake field goal in the third quarter, which featured kicker Joseph Bulovas as a lead blocker (no, really) for holder Mac Jones, who ran into the teeth of Clemson’s powerful defensive line.
Blown coverages aplenty, which had to be particularly galling for a coach who takes special pride in mentoring defensive backs.
Oh, and don’t forget the handful of puzzling play calls, forehead-slapping red-zone failures and kicking fiascos.
It was all so completely foreign. This is a coach who has won six national championships, five of them since 2009, often with a ruthless precision that seemed like the stuff of sci-fi cyborgs. The expectation of airtight execution by the Tide had become ingrained over the years.
Even on those occasions when ‘Bama was beaten in a big game – like the 2014 and ’16 playoffs – it never looked like this. Those games, it was a play here or there, a one-score loss. This game, it was a wipeout in which the other team performed like a Saban machine and the Saban machine broke down spectacularly.
“I just have a feeling that I didn’t do a very good job for our team, with our team, giving them the best opportunity to be successful,” Saban said. “I always feel that way, even sometimes when we win, I think there’s things we could do better or that I could have done better.
“But particularly in this case, never really ever got comfortable with what we needed to do to win this game, especially on defense, especially the matchups we had in our secondary versus their receivers. That was something that was kind of bothering me going into the game, and as the game unfolded, it worked out that those matchups were a big difference in the game.”
Saban also said this: “They’re pretty good.”
Clemson is far better than pretty good. Clemson is great. Among the all-time greats. A 15-0 team that stormed through the schedule and hit its peak in the playoff, pounding Alabama and a suddenly more respectable Notre Dame team by a combined 55 points.
“There was a lot of talk about best ever, all year long,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “We were never in that conversation.”
That isn’t completely true. Alabama was favored, but a lot of people gave the Tigers a shot at winning a close one – much the way they did against the Tide two years ago, when Deshaun Watson threw the winning touchdown pass with one second remaining.
Instead, Clemson had this won after three quarters, in part because it executed the way you expect a Saban team to execute: zero turnovers, just one penalty, 67 percent conversion rate on third down, 83 percent scoring rate in the red zone, 67 percent touchdown rate in the red zone.
That’s a beautiful performance. And it only accentuates the slipshod effort by ‘Bama.
“We were killing ourselves,” Tagovailoa said.
In point of fact, Alabama was unable to sustain its overpowering performances from the regular season. The Tide struggled to put together complete games in the postseason: falling behind Georgia by 14 points in the Southeastern Conference title game as Tua struggled; losing focus after racing to a 28-0 lead on Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl; and then surrendering 30 uncontested points Monday night after taking a 16-14 lead.
Against a team the caliber of Clemson, the mistakes couldn’t be overcome.
Alarmists will declare this the beginning of the end of the Saban Dynasty. While it’s entirely possible Clemson usurped Alabama as the game’s dominant program here, that doesn’t mean the Tide are in irrevocable decline.
They should start the 2019 season ranked No. 2, behind the Tigers. With the number of star players returning and another flotilla of freshman talent on the way, Alabama isn’t sliding very far.
More likely, this upset blowout was a blip, not a sign of serious decline. But that makes it no less shocking, no less surreal, and no less agonizing for the coach whose team never loses like this.
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