Monday, September 24, 2018
Colleges

Was this Nick Saban’s finest moment?

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.

(RELATED: Roll with it. Alabama wins in overtime)

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.

(RELATED: Matt Baker’s final AP top 25)

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.

Comments
More on Dan Mullen’s return to ‘Stark Vegas’

More on Dan Mullen’s return to ‘Stark Vegas’

As expected, Gators coach Dan Mullen's upcoming return to Starkville, where he led Mississippi State to national relevance, emerged as the dominant subject during his regular Monday press conference. Here's what he had to say about his de facto homec...
Updated: 7 hours ago
Cue the cowbells: Mullen returning to Mississippi State

Cue the cowbells: Mullen returning to Mississippi State

GAINESVILLE — Sonically, the Gators are making a drastic transition during practice this week, from bluegrass to Blue Oyster Cult.Or so Dan Mullen jokes.The new Gators coach knows cowbell will serve as the cacophonous soundtrack for his return ...
Updated: 10 hours ago
Matt Baker’s AP Top 25 ballot: Florida’s new top team

Matt Baker’s AP Top 25 ballot: Florida’s new top team

After four full weekends of college football, here's what I know:There is one great team (Alabama). There are three very good teams (Georgia, Ohio State and Clemson).After that? There are a lot of flawed teams with messy results that seem bunched tog...
Published: 09/23/18
UF morning after: Gators answering opportunity’s knock

UF morning after: Gators answering opportunity’s knock

For all the positive vibes they gleaned Saturday night before a gradually disappearing audience, the Gators know they still must conquer their consistency issues.Still too many three-and-outs and muffed progressions. Too few running lanes."The consis...
Published: 09/23/18
Joey Knight’s takeaways from Florida-Tennessee

Joey Knight’s takeaways from Florida-Tennessee

For all their defensive opportunism Saturday, make no mistake: The Gators probably remain a year or two away from seriously contending again in the SEC East Division. Still, it beats the Vols, who appear a light-year or two away.Jeremy Pruitt confirm...
Published: 09/22/18
Updated: 09/23/18
UF journal: A resounding return for LB David Reese

UF journal: A resounding return for LB David Reese

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Gator fans have spent the better part of September wondering if junior LB David Reese ever would get on the field.They spent the better part of Saturday hoping he'd never come off.Reese, whose 2018 debut was postponed by a hi...
Published: 09/22/18
Florida extends Tennessee’s recent SEC futility

Florida extends Tennessee’s recent SEC futility

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — On an evening in which Tennessee honored its 1998 national championship squad, the current crop of Vols managed to offset the whole nostalgic shindig.By making the 2018 Gators resemble a national championship-caliber club.A o...
Published: 09/22/18
Deondre Francois throws 2 TDs as Seminoles hold off NIU 37-19

Deondre Francois throws 2 TDs as Seminoles hold off NIU 37-19

TALLAHASSEE — Florida State has been seeking improvement on offense after managing just 10 combined points in its two FBS losses. The Seminoles found some reasons to be optimistic for a turnaround on Saturday. Deondre Francois threw for a season-high...
Published: 09/22/18
A win for what ails the Seminoles

A win for what ails the Seminoles

TALLAHASSEE — For a moment early Saturday evening, it looked as if Willie Taggart was up to old tricks, running it up as he was wont to do when he had USF on the rise and feeling it.Here we go again?Northern Illinois was beaten for sure. The Hu...
Published: 09/22/18
N’Kosi Perry sparks No. 21 Miami past FIU, 31-17

N’Kosi Perry sparks No. 21 Miami past FIU, 31-17

MIAMI — Miami coach Mark Richt’s decision to send quarterback N’Kosi Perry into the game on the Hurricanes’ third possession Saturday was easy. His next decision might be tougher. Perry came off the bench to throw for 224 yards and three touchdowns, ...
Published: 09/22/18