Nick Saban’s fifth national championship was without question his hardest. Now that he’s moved within one of Alabama icon Bear Bryant for the most in college football’s 79-year poll history, he’s etched his status as the greatest coach of at least his generation.
Frankly, what he’s accomplished is much more difficult than the achievements of Bryant or any other earlier-era legend, none of whose teams had to play 15 games in a season or defend a modern spread offense.
“What he’s doing is unheard of,” said Lane Kiffin, who previously worked under another multi-champion, Pete Caroll. “It’s supposed to stop. … There’s supposed to be 9-5 years -- because that happens to everyone. He continues to do it. The players change, the (assistant) coaches change. He’s the only one who stays the same.”
That Saban’s Alabama dynasty won its fourth national championship in seven seasons is all the more remarkable given the whole run purportedly ended that September night the Tide lost to Ole Miss. It did not appear evident at the time that tailback Derrick Henry would morph into a 2,000-yard Heisman winner and that the defense would thoroughly dominate the next 11 opponents it faced.
It’s also a credit to Saban and his staff that they found a completely different way to beat the last one.
Alabama won a national championship game in which its opponent scored 40 points and racked up 550 yards. Watson frequently vexed the Tide’s defense like he had many an ACC opponent or semifinal foe Oklahoma, extending plays with his feet and throwing darts into the end zone. Coupling him with the Tigers’ breakneck tempo, “We got tired in the second quarter,” said Saban, “and once that happened, it was even worse.”
“We didn’t always play pretty in this game,” said newly minted five-time champion Saban following the victory. “It probably wasn’t one of our best games when it just comes to flat execution. But when it comes to competing and making plays when we needed to make them, it was probably as good as it gets. I think that’s the kind of competitors that win championships, and that’s probably why we’re sitting here.”
"The main battle on the ground features Alabama’s running back Derrick Henry, who amassed 2,061 years this season on top of 25 touchdowns. Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson has thrown 3,699 yards in the 2015 outing, throwing for 21 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Henry won this year’s Heisman Trophy, presented annually to the best player in college football, while Watson finished second in the voting for the distinction."
New York Times:
Henry contributed 158 yards rushing and three touchdowns Monday to ignite Alabama’s 45-40 victory against Clemson. Along the way, he supplanted Shaun Alexander as the Tide’s career rushing yards leader by breaking his record of 3,565 yards.
The Tide were also led by tight end O. J. Howard, who scored two touchdowns. Kenyan Drake returned a kickoff 95 yards to put Alabama up by 38-27 with 7 minutes 31 seconds left in the game. Quarterback Jake Coker was 16 of 25 for 335 yards and two touchdowns.
But the seal of authenticity on Saban’s stamp of greatness was provided by three young defensive backs who played like upperclassmen. Ronnie Harrison and Minkah Fitzpatrick, both one year removed from high school, broke up passes in the end zone in the third quarter.
And Marlon Humphrey, a redshirt freshman, recovered an onside kick in the fourth after the Tide had tied the score at 24 with a field goal, setting up the score that put Alabama ahead for good.
The Tigers, who had won 51 straight when leading after three quarters, were outscored by 24-16 in the final 15 minutes. To a man, Alabama players reflect Saban’s attention to detail and his focus. The Tigers, who were bidding for their first national championship since 1981, lost their concentration for a moment, on the onside kick, and it cost them. “Just a few plays,” Swinney said.
Swinney described the long scores by Howard and the onside kick as “the three critical errors” that blotted out Clemson’s positives: the 550 yards of total offense (to Alabama’s 473) and quarterback Deshaun Watson’s 4,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing in a season. Watson was 30 of 47 for 405 yards and four touchdowns.
Like objects in Alabama’s side mirror, the top-ranked Tigers were closer than they appeared. Since 2011, they have an overall record of 56-12 to the Tide’s 62-7. The Tigers will have their day. But Monday belonged to Alabama.
“As long as you do this it’s always about the next play, the next game,” Saban said.
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"I literally think that they're exactly the same," Dont'a Hightower said on Thursday when asked to compare Belichick and Saban during a Super Bowl media session. "From the way that they run their meetings to the way that we run practice, just the way they address the team, you can definitely tell that Nick learned something from Bill whenever they were at Cleveland. And I mean they're still pretty close friends. So I can only imagine how much more they're alike than what I think. I literally think they are two peas in a pod."