ATLANTA — Forget “The Process.” This is about the man — Nick Saban — and “The Machine.”
Skip Bayless, Danny Kanell and other Alabama haters swear that Saban, the evil genius, has created a football lab that churns out NFL bodies on command. If it’s not under Bryant-Denny Stadium, someone should check the bowels of Bryant Museum.
What he’s doing can’t be legal. But it is.
After arriving in Tuscaloosa in 2007, Saban built perhaps the most dominant, consistent top-to-bottom program in college football history. He tied Bear Bryant with six national championships Monday night in Mercedes-Benz Stadium after beating Georgia 26-23 in overtime. He has won five of those while wearing Crimson, all since 2009.
The non-championship seasons since his first Bama title? They’ve gone 10-3, 11-2, 12-2 and 14-1. Oh, and the Tide finished 12-2 in ’08 as well.
You know how historians used to publish yearly almanacs to record the highlights of each year? It would take those types of hard-bound volumes to list all of Saban’s accomplishments.
This year’s team, though, taught us the ceiling of Saban’s supposed football machine.
If not for Alabama’s field-goal kicking woes, it got tempting at times to believe in Saban’s possibly illicit machine. To wit:
- The 2016 team that finished one play away from a national championship lost the program’s best collection of pass rushers ever. Yes, Derrick Thomas is the all-time best with 27 sacks in 1988 alone. Yes, 1992 bookends Eric Curry and John Copeland may be the most famous Tide tandem ever. But in Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson, Alabama lost 67 career sacks — and the most menacing third-and-long fire drill this team has ever seen.
- Lane Kiffin deserves some credit for modernizing Alabama’s offense after Saban lost a political battle against proponents of hurry-up, no-huddle offenses. It’s easy to criticize Kiffin for not running the ball enough, or spouting off to the media, or any number of sins against The Process. But he remains one of the best play-calling sequencers in all of football. And he helped Alabama outscore Clemson 45-40 in a national championship two years ago — with Jake Coker at quarterback. He won an SEC title with Blake Sims. And he took Bama to within a second of a title last year with freshman Jalen Hurts. Kiffin left after the College Football Playoff semifinals last year to become the coach at Florida Atlantic.
- Marlon Humphrey. Reuben Foster. O.J. Howard. Cam Robinson. Dalvin Tomlinson. ArDarius Stewart. Eddie Jackson. Those are some more names that the 2016 team lost. Most of those players are NFL starters as rookies. And most are better than anyone on Alabama’s roster now at their respective positions.
- Injuries devastated Alabama’s linebackers this year. It would be an exaggeration to compare that position group to what happened to civilization during the bubonic plague, but not by much. Shaun Dion Hamilton. Dylan Moses. Anfernee Jennings. Terrell Lewis. Christian Miller. Rashaan Evans. That’s an incomplete list of Alabama linebackers who suffered significant injuries.
- There are a litany of other things that deserve their own listing, but this is getting long. So I’ll try to be brief. Jeremy Pruitt, whom Alabama hired to replace former defensive coordinator Kirby Smart (now Georgia’s head coach), accepted the Tennessee head coaching job before this year’s playoffs. Left tackle Jonah Williams, who replaced Robinson, left the national championship game with an injury, forcing in an inexperienced freshman. Lester Cotton, a starter on a good, not great offensive line, got hurt against Clemson and missed the Georgia game. Minkah Fitzpatrick played the championship game with a bruised kidney.
- Oh, and Alabama pulled quarterback Jalen Hurts, who entered Monday with a 25-2 record as a starter, at halftime because the team trailed Georgia and it became obvious the 2016 SEC Offensive Player of the year wasn’t good enough against these Bulldogs.
That’s where we get to the juncture between Saban’s unfair football machine and Saban’s brilliance.
Along with two (more) crucial missed field goals vs. Georgia, that Category 5 type of storm is what it took to dethrone The Machine.
Did Alabama get lucky? Yes. LSU, Mississippi State and Fresno State were nice teams this year, but those aren’t national championship-type wins. The Tide got a virtual bye in December while 10 other Power 5 teams fought out championship games. Ohio State, the Big Ten champion, made a case for the fourth playoff spot, but couldn’t overcome an embarrassing blowout at Iowa. A convincing Iron Bowl loss and a hot Auburn team got neutralized when Georgia took revenge against the Tigers in the SEC Championship Game. And Clemson didn’t have Deshaun Watson this year.
Still, The Machine persisted, part myth and part reality, until it bumped into its ridiculous but real limitations.
This could be the most talented team Alabama has ever fielded. According to 247Sports, this roster includes 18 5-star players and 51 4-star players, by far the best in college football. There are 5-star players on special teams. There are 5-star players not even good enough to make the two-deep.
But there were no stars. Not the transcendent kind. Not Julio Jones. Not Mark Ingram. Not AJ McCarron. Not Dont’a Hightower. There are tremendous talents. First-round talents. But, all due respect to Fitzpatrick, JK Scott and Calvin Ridley, Alabama did not field any true Heisman Trophy contenders, or Doak Walker Award finalists, or SEC Player of the Year candidates.
Just a group of players at every position that could do their jobs as well as any other team. (Again, with maybe one exception at kicker.)
Even the best football machine ever made wasn’t good enough to win a national championship after a healthy dose of misfortune. With luck, the machine got Alabama to the National Championship Game. But when Alabama fell behind 13-0 at halftime, it was apparent that the Tide couldn’t beat top-10 SEC teams (Auburn, Georgia) without at least one transcendent star.
Alabama has needed to tilt the odds before. At the end of the 2015 season, Saban did it with an onside kick against Clemson, which gave the Tide the extra possession it needed to win. But this was different.
For all its charms, The Machine doesn’t do heroics. It creates NFL run-stuffing defensive tackles. It manufactures All-SEC running backs. It does not, with a national championship on the line and one half to go, fabricate a legendary freshman quarterback.
Tua Tagovailoa had attempted 53 college passes prior to Monday. The Hawaiian in charge of piloting what had become “The (Flawed) Machine” Monday night threw an interception in the third quarter because he missed a signal. While his entire team blocked for a run, he threw the ball to Georgia, on the wrong side of the field, trailing 20-7.
With barely more than 20 minutes of game time remaining, that should’ve been enough to expose The Machine as an entertaining mythical narrative.
The Machine gave way to Saban’s guts and Tua’s savvy.
This may not be Saban’s final national championship. Alabama beat Georgia with a freshman quarterback, a freshman left tackle and four freshmen out of five skill-position players on the game-winning play. Najee Harris? Freshman. Moses at linebacker? Freshman.
But, for one night, we got to understand that Alabama can’t just win everything. Not automatically.
Monday night, two men — Saban and Tagovailoa — bested The Machine. And Saban reminded us all that it’s not as easy as it seems.
He’s just that special.