Alabama’s 38-0 whitewash victory in the College Football Playoff semifinals had little to do with Michigan State and everything to do with head coach Nick Saban’s tactical brilliance leading up to the Cotton Bowl.
Sure, the Spartans stunk up the joint on Thursday night (a painful admission for MSU alums everywhere — including yours truly) in ways that few big-time programs could rival, in terms of being hapless in the running game, hopeless in the passing game and powerless to stop Crimson Tide quarterback Jake Coker (25 of 30 for 286 yards, two TDs) from looking like Tom Freaking Brady on NFL Sundays.
In fact, some Michigan State fans might still be waiting for quarterback Connor Cook (210 yards, zero TDs, two INTs) to attempt his first pass with a clean pocket.
No, with this type of supreme effort, with that absurd depth along the defensive line, Alabama could have faced a bottom-tier NFL team in the Playoff semifinals (needless hyperbole alert!) … and the Crimson Tide still might have advanced to the Jan. 11 national championship game.
And that’s a full-credit share to Saban and his coaching staff for expertly motivating the Tide — prohibitive pregame favorites against the Spartans — by constantly reminding the players of their most recent postseason flameouts: A 2014 Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma (perhaps the same night pop-music superstar Katy Perry fell hard for Sooners quarterback Trevor Knight) and last year’s Sugar Bowl defeat to Ohio State in the inaugural Playoff semis (squandering an early 21-6 lead).
Yes, instead of being complacent and content, the Alabama players were relentlessly breathing fire against an overmatched Michigan State club, on the dual rationale of desperately wanting another chance at a national championship … and happily making Saban cease the endless carping about the Ohio State loss, whenever standing before a microphone or podium.
Saban’s motivation for that? Anything to sharpen a team’s focus before a monumental game; and sometimes, brow-beating works wonders, too. It runs similar to the wise words of a famous basketball coach: ‘If you’re going to hate me, please do it as a group.’
Which brings us to this: We all know Alabama defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson will be great at the NFL level … but what prompted his superhero-esque performance against the Spartans?
Forget about the 312 pounds supporting that 6-foot-4 frame. Robinson was a tireless, weightless, remorseless killing machine throughout the Cotton Bowl, serving as a one-man wrecking crew to a Michigan State offense that could muster only 29 rushing yards on 26 carries.
Simply put, Robinson was the real-life version of Forest Whittaker’s “Charles Jefferson” character in the 80s comedy Fast Times At Ridgemont High … after being led to believe that vandals from Lincoln High School (Ridgemont’s football rival) had destroyed Jefferson’s car before The Big Game.
Spoiler alert: The Lincoln High players were unwitting pawns in this torturous act of reprisal, as Sean Penn’s “Jeff Spicoli” character needed a scapegoat for wrecking Jefferson’s Trans Am the previous night. Not unlike how the Michigan State offensive linemen must have felt about Robinson on Thursday.
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This isn’t going to end well for Clemson.
Yes, the Tigers — who crushed Oklahoma by 20 in the Orange Bowl (the other national semifinal) — deserve major props for staying perfect throughout the season (14-0) and standing tall as the nation’s top-ranked team for three full months.
But let’s be honest: Clemson wouldn’t still be undefeated if “ALABAMA” had appeared on the schedule during September, October, November or December. As such, the Tigers will need to play a near-perfect game in January to deny Saban of his fourth national championship with the Crimson Tide (fifth overall).
Here’s why that won’t happen: Alabama’s aura of invincibility is a real phenomenon. The Crimson Tide’s devastating depth along the defensive line — once again — cannot be overstated. Plus, the odds of Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry (two touchdowns versus Michigan State) collecting just 75 yards on 20 carries in back-to-back games are quite long.
Longer than, say, the intensely focused Saban hosting a pizza party at Bryant-Denny Stadium sometime in the next six days.
The above line is a playful jab at Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney — a former walk-on and assistant coach at Alabama — hosting a large-capacity pizza party at Memorial Stadium the day after the Tigers claimed the ACC championship last month (and a No. 1 seed in the four-team Playoff).
On one hand, this has to be the most surreal experience of Swinney’s coaching life, taking on the Crimson Tide in a high-stakes championship setting. On the other, it will be disturbing to pop in the digital tape of Alabama’s Cotton Bowl thrashing … and attempt to find a weakness within the ‘Bama defense, which ranks first nationally in fewest points allowed (13.4 per game).
There’s a mental cross to bear for Swinney, as well.
Remember the BCS National Championship from three years ago? Undefeated Notre Dame might have entered the game as the higher seed … but one-loss Alabama had claimed victory just moments after kickoff, by ravaging the undersized Irish with a superior ground game — which included tailbacks Eddie Lacy (157 total yards, two TDs), T.J. Yeldon (108 yards, one TD) — and a highly proficient passing attack in the first 30 minutes (led by quarterback AJ McCarron and receiver Amari Cooper).
The halftime score: Alabama 28, Notre Dame 0 … and if you recall Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s ESPN interview during the intermission, his team might as well have been trailing by 50.
That classic look of awed resignation was one for the books.
The same challenge lies ahead for Swinney and his staff: How will the Tigers hang with the Crimson Tide early on? And for Phase II, how can they avoid crumbling in the second half, similar to how Michigan State withered in the Cotton Bowl?
After all, playing Alabama — when factoring in its size, depth, talent, coaching and illustrious track record for collecting national championships — can tax an opposing team like no other.
In short, this stands as Swinney’s toughest coaching assignment to date — at least until he succeeds a retiring Saban at Alabama in a few years (kidding — I think).
But make no mistake, Saban also has some hurdles to overcome in the next seven days: He must devise an overall game plan that contains dual-threat quarterback Deshaun Watson (332 total yards, two TDs versus Oklahoma).
He must also conceive one last Jedi Mind Trick in short order, in terms of selling his plentiful lot of 4- and 5-star prep superstars on the notion of being underdogs for next week’s championship bout.
And that profound speech must probe deeper than simply pointing to Alabama donning the colors of the lower seed against Clemson — the white jerseys.
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.