There was a point in Alabama’s dismembering of Michigan State Thursday night when Spartans quarterback Connor Cook – reduced to a dinged, dazed and daffy mess by the Crimson Tide’s defense – looked up after another incompletion and mouthed the words, “They’re f’in everywhere.”
This wasn’t some pedestrian quarterback who completed only 19 of 39 passes with two interceptions and four sacks. Cook had a record of 34-4 in the last three seasons with 70 touchdown passes and only 19 interceptions in 1,113 attempts, and he’s a projected first-round NFL draft pick.
There was only one problem in his final college game: He was playing against future NFL linemen.
Alabama’s defensive front is that good. It’s why, despite all of the feel-good stories you’re going to be seeing and reading in the next week about Clemson’s rise to prominence, quarterback Deshaun Watson’s brilliance and coach Dabo Swinney’s return to face the Alabama mothership, that I just can’t see Alabama losing the national championship game.
Clemson had a remarkable performance in a 37-17 win over Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.
It still wasn’t as impressive as what Alabama did in a 38-0 win over Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl.
The national title game Jan. 11 in Glendale, Ariz., is a Southern dream matchup. It’s SEC versus ACC. On one side: Alabama coach Nick Saban looking for his fifth championship, including four in a seven-year span at Alabama. On the other: Swinney, Alabama-born, former walk-on wide receiver and a member of the Tide’s 1992 national championship team under Gene Stallings (for whom he later coached). He’s trying to lead Clemson to its first championship since 1981.
Clemson shouldn’t be starved for motivation. It’s a seven-point underdog despite being 14-0.
Regardless, I see Alabama winning. Here’s why:
• Saban/retribution: He is at his best when Alabama is coming off disappointment, which was the case in the last two Decembers (losses to Auburn before the 2013 SEC Championship Game and Ohio State in the 2014 semis). Players were “a little too complacent” in last year’s Playoff, Saban said, taking responsibility for that. But against Michigan State, “The focus that they had for this game was completely different than we ever had before.” That’s Mr. Never Happy Nick Saban saying that. That’s a bad sign for any opponent.
• Defense: Georgia fans would love if Kirby Smart could bring some of these players with him to Athens. Since a 43-37 loss to Mississippi in Week 3, Alabama has won 11 straight, allowing only 10.6 points per game. The defense has two shutouts in that span, allowed offenses just seven points in the last two games and totaled 43 sacks with 21 forced turnovers. Even Smart was surprised at the level of dominance of Michigan State, saying of the shutout, “I did not see that coming.” Alabama’s defensive front was so good – against a pretty good offensive line – that it got pressure on Cook despite often rushing only four. Smart: “That makes things easier to coach.”
• Strength vs. strength: Clemson’s offensive line dominated Oklahoma, as it has other opponents. But Alabama has the nation’s best run defense and tremendous depth in the front seven, which allows Smart to rotate players and wear down opponents in the second half. When Alabama’s defense has struggled in recent seasons, it has been against mobile quarterbacks who can make plays with their legs — like Deshaun Watson. But Alabama has not only the strength but the speed to contain Watson and the Tigers’ skill players.
• The Lane Kiffin factor: No. I’m not crazy. (OK, I might be crazy but not in this case.) As alternately goofy and disastrous as Kiffin has been as a head coach, he has been a very good offensive coordinator in Tuscaloosa and done wonders developing two quarterbacks of obviously limited talent — Blake Sims last year and Jake Coker this year. Coker completed 25 of 30 attempts for 286 yards and two touchdowns in the Cotton Bowl. The Spartans were determined to stop Heisman Trophy running back Derrick Henry so Kiffin dialed up play-action passes and took advantage of MSU putting its strong safety on a slot receiver.
Alabama had nine new starters on offense this season. “So it was going to take time,” Kiffin said. “We were still in a quarterback situation, rotating guys and figuring that out. (But) when you are a defensive team, and can run the ball, it allows your skill guys and your quarterback to develop as the season progresses.”
So Saban has helped rehabilitate Kiffin’s career. That might be his greatest accomplishment of all.
When I asked Kiffin how much his head coaching jobs had damaged his image, he said, “Obviously it did. There are a lot of things I could’ve done better. But that’s part of the reason you come here to work for Coach Saban. You see how he does things and you get a chance to learn from him.”
And ultimately, Alabama will get a chance for another national title.
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