MIAMI — Of all the incredible accomplishments in Nick Saban’s unbelievable coaching career, Monday night at Hard Rock Stadium was the most remarkable masterpiece of them all.
Not only because of the end result — a 52-24 destruction of Ohio State in the College Football Playoff national championship game. With a lame-duck play caller and its top two receivers either hobbled or completely sidelined for two quarters, the Tide put up more yards on the Buckeyes (621) than any team since at least 2009 as Mac Jones set a CFP championship record with 464 passing yards.
Not necessarily because of the history, either. Saban’s seventh national title (six with the Tide, one at LSU) moved him past another ‘Bama legend, Bear Bryant, for the most ever and officially settled the greatest-of-all-time debate.
No, what was most impressive about Saban’s four quarters of dominance is everything that preceded this gorgeous night in south Florida.
The coronavirus pandemic made this the toughest season of the modern era. And Saban didn’t just get through it undefeated for his second perfect season (and first since 2009). He got through it mostly unchallenged.
“I think ‘perseverance’ probably is the one word that describes this team the best,” Saban said, “in terms of what they’ve had to overcome all season long, to come undefeated and win a championship.”
The obstacles started before the season even began, as virus concerns led numerous high-profile players to opt out across the country.
Not at ‘Bama (13-0). Saban got stars like DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle to risk multi-million-dollar pro careers for another title run.
The tumult continued throughout the stop-and-start season, where teams were as only good as their last round of testing and games were in flux until kickoff. Positive tests drained rosters physically. The uncertainty drained players mentally.
“This has been a long, long road,” Buckeyes coach Ryan Day said.
If that long road wasn’t hard enough for Saban, his offensive coordinator, Steve Sarkisian, double-dipped during the playoff, splitting time between game prep and taking over Texas. Similar turnover helped derail Saban’s title quest four years ago in Tampa.
Combine them, and this was the season of clutter — what Saban calls the unimportant, distracting fluff that floats around a team — and the toughest challenge yet for the top-to-bottom blueprint Saban calls The Process.
And, as usual, The Process persevered.
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Saban’s biggest star was Smith, the Heisman Trophy winner who set a CFP championship record with 12 receptions (three touchdowns) … before halftime. His 215 yards were the second-most ever on this stage.
But Smith didn’t get a chance to break that record; he left the game with a dislocated finger.
“Heaven knows what he would have done if he had played the whole game,” Saban said.
Not that they needed him. Even without Smith and the other superstar receiver (Waddle, who was hobbled by an ankle injury that had sidelined him since October), Saban’s juggernaut kept rolling past the Buckeyes (7-1).
The Tide scored on its first two possessions without Smith. Then Christian Barmore stuffed a fourth-and-1 Buckeyes rush, setting up another touchdown.
All in a national title game, against an undefeated, blueblood, Big Ten champion.
“I think we’re the best team to ever play,” Jones said.
If there’s an argument against him, it’s the abbreviated schedule. But even that point reinforces how historic this team was.
Although ‘Bama did not play its traditional 12-game regular season, it wasn’t cut in half, like what happened in the Big Ten and Pac-12. The SEC didn’t change its rules to make the Tide’s playoff path more realistic, as the Big Ten did for Ohio State and the ACC did for Clemson and Notre Dame.
With no breaks and 11 SEC games, the Tide were perfect. Aside from the 15-point shootout win over Ole Miss and the 52-46 thriller over Florida in the SEC championship, every ‘Bama victory came by at least three scores.
“To me, this team accomplished more almost than any team,” Saban said.
Not almost. There are no qualifiers needed with this team or with Saban. The masterpiece in Miami made it clear.
This was the best season by the best coach in college football history.