ATLANTA — It’s fun trying to decipher the quirky nonverbal expressions of Alabama head coach Nick Saban during a press conference.
At Thursday’s College Football Playoff media session, inside the palatial College Football Hall of Fame, Saban, along with Mark Dantonio (Michigan State), Dabo Swinney (Clemson) and Bob Stoops (Oklahoma) discussed the upcoming national semifinals (on New Year’s Eve) with relaxed, jovial aplomb, knowing their pressure-packed games wouldn’t occur for another 21 days.
The quartet of decorated coaches (all conference champions in 2015) also had the pleasure of sitting adjacent to the College Football Playoff Trophy — a long, sleek and slick award which simultaneously bears the color tints of gold and bronze, depending on the light.
It’s a cool trophy, but one that absolutely needs a new moniker. Something dignified. Perhaps something to rival the championship-infused glory of the NFL’s Lombardi Trophy, NHL’s Stanley Cup, NBA’s Larry O’Brien Trophy or Major League Baseball’s Commissioner’s Trophy.
Dignified? On that rationale alone, we can rule out “The Larry Culpepper Memorial Trophy” … even if the marketing wizards at Dr Pepper have co-branded the fictitious Culpepper character (played by versatile actor James M. Connor) with the regal, but yet-to-be-iconic College Football Playoff trophy.
Back to Saban. During the press conference, the Alabama coach led the foursome in the unofficial categories of “waves to the media audience,” “arms folded during dull moments,” “blank stares during questions that didn’t pertain to him” and “idle hands syndrome,” which was rectified with a few jotted-down notes during the session.
Which begs the questions: What could Saban be possibly writing on that notepad? Was it something about the 28-minute media session, in terms of crafting a better response? Something about the finishing kick for recruiting season? Something about his evening dinner plans in downtown Atlanta? Or something about the weekend trip to New York City, in hopes of seeing Crimson Tide tailback Derrick Henry (the nation’s leading rusher) capture the Heisman Trophy?
And yet, despite the occasional Saban shrug of indifference, the coach easily brought the most color and insight to Thursday’s presser, volunteering stories about his Ohio past (as a college assistant and NFL defensive coordinator), his Michigan State roots (covering 10 total seasons), his long-standing relationship with the entire Stoops clan, his NFL dealings with future first-ballot Hall of Fame coach Bill Belichick and the quicker-than-usual process for hiring Dantonio as his defensive coordinator at Michigan State, circa 1995.
This warm, ebullient side of Saban was hardly an act. If anything, it was a startling reminder that, of the four men at the microphone stands, only Saban has been to the new College Football Playoff multiple times.
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The 2014 Alabama squad bore the look of a juggernaut heading into last year’s national semifinals, the first of its kind in FBS history.
The Crimson Tide, with only a narrow road loss to Ole Miss smudging their regular-season resume, rolled into the Sugar Bowl (nearby New Orleans) as the top-ranked team … and a heavy favorite against No. 4 Ohio State.
And when T.J. Yeldon scored a 2-yard touchdown in the second quarter, boosting the Tide’s lead to 21-6, it seemed like Alabama would be shoo-ins for the Playoff title game.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the coronation: Led by tailback Ezekiel Elliott (230 rushing yards, two TDs), Ohio State erupted for 36 points in the game’s final 33 minutes and rallied for a 42-35 upset win.
“I think it was our first time to go to a bowl game that was really a ‘playoff’ game. So maybe that experience will now help us a little bit in the future. Be able to do a little better job with our players,” said Saban.
“It’s really my responsibility and all of us in the (Alabama) organization who affect the players to try to get them to play as well as they can play in a game. I think, if you don’t feel that your team plays great, you always feel like you need to do a better job as a coach, and that’s certainly how we felt last year.”
A week after upending the Crimson Tide, the Buckeyes stifled a high-octane Oregon club (starring Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota), justifying their hotly contested inclusion into the four-team Playoff.
It also brought a sizable measure of respect to the Big Ten … which looked painfully ordinary three months prior, when Ohio State (versus Virginia Tech), Michigan State (versus Oregon), Michigan (versus Notre Dame), Northwestern (versus Northern Illinois) and Purdue (versus Central Michigan) all fell hard on the same September Saturday.
Fast forward to the present: If Alabama had stumbled against Florida in last week’s SEC title game, it’s universally acknowledged the anemic Gators wouldn’t have had enough clout to earn a spot in the Playoff semis. In essence, it was a rare case of Crimson Tide Or Bust for the big, bad and proud SEC, the nation’s best conference over the last 10 years (seven national titles in that span).
But with that pressurized obstacle in the rear-view mirror, Alabama can resume its customary status as the national champion favorite, Las Vegas-wise, even if Clemson owns the top Playoff ranking and serves as the only Playoff team without a loss.
“(We’re) 13-0. I mean, we’ve played on a big stage all year. I think that every week it’s a big stage when you’re in college football. These guys have responded to all the challenges,” said Swinney, a former Alabama walk-on who could be on the short list of Crimson Tide head-coaching candidates, whenever the 64-year-old Saban opts for retirement (or a new challenge).
“I think we’ve had great leadership. That’s been the real key. We do have 40 freshmen and 28 of them played this year. But the leadership on our team was consistent all throughout. (The leaders) didn’t always play perfect, but they just continued to find ways to win each and every week.”
Michigan State (12-1 overall), in turn, couldn’t find a way to win every week. But even with its controversial loss to unranked Nebraska on Nov. 7 — when the Cornhuskers scored the go-ahead touchdown with an ineligible receiver (although a flag was never thrown) — it wasn’t enough to destroy the Spartans’ still-realistic mission of a Big Ten East title.
“We knew we controlled our own situation by who we were playing in the near future, at that point in time,” said Dantonio, referencing Michigan State’s titanic upset of Ohio State two weeks after the Nebraska debacle. “So, we just sort of made a statement and continued on. I think after you do have a loss or after something bad happens to you, it’s how you respond to that … that defines people. So we talked a lot about that and tried to make that happen.”
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All four coaches demonstrated more ease than tension during Thursday’s media conference. Saban was just a little more outgoing, a little more avuncular than his younger counterparts.
If anything, Stoops and Swinney had the easy-to-discern faces of coaches who were thrilled to be on the opposite bracket of Michigan State and Alabama — two power-running teams with deep, physical lines along the trenches.
Swinney might have also relished the perception of Clemson being a consensus underdog against Oklahoma (11-1), which on the heels of a bad October loss to Texas, has reeled off seven consecutive victories to close the regular season — by a composite score of 364-136.
Yes, the Tigers boast a Heisman finalist at quarterback (Deshaun Watson). Yes, they currently rank seventh nationally in total defense. And yes, they notched three top-10 victories from the final Playoff poll (Notre Dame, Florida State, North Carolina).
However, it still doesn’t compare — at least in national-media circles — to Oklahoma’s back-to-back-to-back November shellackings of Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State to clinch the outright Big 12 championship. As such, the Sooners are viewed as the “hottest” Playoff team … even though Alabama hasn’t fallen since late September and Clemson hasn’t incurred a defeat since November 2014.
But ay the rub: It’s impossible to discuss the mental strength of Oklahoma, without lamenting last year’s 40-6 loss to Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl, a 34-point drubbing that occurred without Watson (4,499 total yards, 41 TDs in 2015) in the Tigers lineup.
(Reserve quarterback Cole Stoudt stunned the Sooners for 319 yards passing and four total touchdowns.)
“Sure, I know (Clemson) lost a fair amount of guys, but you can tell they beat the heck out of us without Deshaun Watson,” recalls Stoops, with a tinge of lingering disgust. “You talk about a smooth, great athlete throwing the football, running it, all of it, you know?”
The upcoming semifinals provide an interesting offensive contrast, even though all four clubs have a reasonable shot at 30-plus points on New Year’s Eve. Clemson and Oklahoma sport up-tempo attacks; whereas Michigan State and Alabama prefer to bludgeon opponents with time-consuming drives.
And that’s enough to garner Saban’s ultimate respect, when discussing the Spartans.
“I got home just in time to watch Michigan State go 22 plays in nine minutes … and score a touchdown,” gushed Saban, referring to the Spartans’ epic, game-clinching touchdown drive in last week’s Big Ten championship (beating Iowa). “That told me probably as much as I needed to know about that team, in terms of the grit that they had, the kind of competitive spirit they had, how they believed in one another and how they thought they could win the game. And the fact they’ve won several games this year, late in games by making big plays, tells you a lot about the confidence of a team and how they compete in a game.
“So, they’re a very physical team. They run the ball, play really good defense. So this is going to be a really challenging game for us.”
This late in the press session, Saban had already shirked the quirks of folding his arms, jotting down notes and reminiscing about his salad days in coaching. The mere anticipation of taking on Michigan State — a program indirectly constructed in his own image (Dantonio cites Saban and Jim Tressel as his biggest football influences) — had been enough to grab the Alabama coach’s full attention.
At that moment, as his voice raised to an enthusiastic pitch, you got the sense Saban (four national titles since 2003) was already prepared for Alabama’s shot at redemption … in a quest to usurp the memory of a lone Playoff failure.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.