ATLANTA —Technically, Alabama coach Nick Saban only tied the legendary Bear Bryant when he earned his sixth career national championship early Tuesday morning.
But that’s not quite right. When backup quarterback Tua Tagovailoa hit receiver DeVonta Smith for the game-winner in overtime, Saban passed Bryant as the greatest coach the sport has ever seen — no matter what he says.
"I think Coach Bryant is probably the best coach of all time because of the longevity of his tenure as a coach and the way he changed," Saban said. "I mean, he won championships running the wishbone. He (won) them with Joe Namath dropping back throwing when people never, ever did it."
Saban’s ignoring how much he has changed, too. He brought on lightning-rod Lane Kiffin to coordinate his offenses. He was fine with different styles of play in 2014, 2015 and 2016 to accommodate his quarterbacks’ strengths. He cycled through coordinators who grew his coaching tree.
And then there was Monday night’s College Football Playoff national championship.
The obvious turning point came when Saban benched quarterback Jalen Hurts, who entered 25-2 as a starter and nearly won last year’s title at Raymond James Stadium. Of course Saban felt comfortable throwing a true freshman (Tagovailoa) into his first meaningful action in a national title game, against one of the best defenses in the country and a pseudo-road environment at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. He’s the same coach who called a surprise onside kick that helped beat Clemson for the title two years ago.
"I think all year long we had lots of confidence in Tua, and we played him so that, if this situation occurred, that he would be ready to play," Saban said.
Saban did more than play Tagovailoa. He relied on him to win the game. Trailing 13-0 on the second drive of the third quarter, Tagovailoa passed the ball or ran it himself on all seven plays to get the Tide on the board.
The game began to swing.
There was more than Tagovailoa, of course. Freshman running back Najee Harris had no touches in the first half and no carries in the previous two games. He rushed for 64 yards in the second half. Freshman receiver DeVonta Smith had seven catches all season — until he split Georgia’s two-deep coverage for the final 41-yard touchdown.
"We always preach, your opportunity will come," Smith said. "When your opportunity comes, make the best of it."
It’s not the ’Bama way. It’s the Saban way — the embodiment of the Process that created this modern dynasty.
Throw out his first season with the Crimson Tide, and Saban is 125-14 in Tuscaloosa. Battling scholarship limits Bryant never did, Saban has five national titles in nine seasons (plus the sixth he won at LSU in 2003).
This might have been Saban’s best performance of them all.
His Tide was uncharacteristically vulnerable, thanks to kicking woes and the largest injury list Saban can remember. When starting left tackle Jonah Williams went down Monday night, freshman Alex Leatherwood filled the void admirably. A linebacker corps without at least three former starters combined for 27 tackles (4 ½ for a loss) and held Georgia’s elite running game to 133 yards — barely half its season average.
That’s the benefit of seven consecutive top-ranked recruiting classes. Even not-dominant ’Bama is the best team in the country. That’s what Saban has created.
No one knows how long the 66-year-old Saban will keep coaching, or how many more titles he might collect. This didn’t look like Georgia’s last trip to the big stage. Clemson and Ohio State aren’t going away, either.
But after Monday night’s decisions became Tuesday morning’s heroics, it doesn’t matter.
Move over, Bear. There’s a new all-time king of college football.
Contact Matt Baker at [email protected] Follow @MBakerTBTimes.