GLENDALE, ARIZ. — He hasn’t won five national championships for nothing, and No. 5 came on a night when Alabama won not because of Kirby Smart’s defense, which was shredded for 40 points and 550 yards, or the Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry. It won because Nick Saban thought of something.
An onside kick with 10:24 remaining in a tied national title game? Who does that? Only the best in the business, maybe the best ever in this business. Saban’s bold choice allowed Alabama to score 10 points without handing the ball back to the irresistible Deshaun Watson, and those 10 points carried a frantic night for Alabama.
Much else happened. Clemson will rue forever its inability to handle kickoffs, from the onside version gathered in by Bama freshman Marlon Humphrey to the very next one, which the Crimson Tide’s Kenyan Drake returned for what should have been a killing touchdown. Only when tight end O.J. Howard managed the third of his three massive receptions — the first two had gone for touchdowns — did an Alabama victory seem imminent.
Smart was by far the less impressive of the Tide’s coordinators this night. His defense’s inability to halt Watson — that’s no great sin, given that Watson is the nation’s best collegiate player — left it to the Tide’s offense to keep seeing and raising Clemson. And the much-lampooned Lane Kiffin was equal to the task. He kept dialing up plays that left Howard running free through the Clemson secondary, and this became the title game that defense forgot.
But that, again, goes back to Saban. He has built such a beautiful machine that his proud defense can pull a no-show and Alabama can still walk away with another championship, its fourth in seven seasons. (Saban won his first at LSU. He could probably win one at Vanderbilt if he set his mind to it.)
Clemson gave Bama all it wanted and then some. The Tigers led 14-7 after one quarter and 24-21 after three. Watson — who’s from Gainesville, Ga. — was as good as advertised. Nay, better. He came very close to beating Saban’s creation by himself, as Smart feared he might. Asked at Media Day if Alabama had someone simulating Watson in practice, the man who will coach Georgia next year said: “If we had someone who could simulate him, he’d be starting for us.”
But that’s Alabama. It wobbles sometimes, but it never falls. Remember when Ole Miss went to Tuscaloosa and won on Sept. 19? Remember how Bama was supposed to have been dealt out of the College Football Playoff on Oct. 3 in Athens? Remember the final score of that Georgia game? (Alabama 38, Smart’s team-to-be 10.) Seems forever ago, does it not?
Alabama went back to basics, and nobody does basics better than Saban. But it took frills to win this final game. The Tigers weren’t Michigan State or Florida. The Tigers were sleek and fairly relentless themselves. They even scored to make it 45-40 with 12 seconds left, requiring the Tide to withstand one final onside kick.
To be fair, Smart’s defense did have one shining moment, and it might have turned the game. With Clemson leading by a touchdown early in the second quarter, Watson — who hadn’t yet put a foot wrong – threw long for Ray-Ray McCloud, who’d dashed past cornerback Geno Matias-Smith. This time Smart had baited Watson. Jackson, who’d arrived late on an earlier touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow, rotated into coverage and intercepted. Alabama took the ball at the Tigers’ 42. Seven plays later, Henry tied the game at 14.
That’s how the first half ended. The Tigers might have grabbed points but for an officiating blunder. With 20 seconds left, Watson found Zac Brooks for 11 yards and a first down. The clock is supposed to stop after a first down. It should have been halted with 12 seconds remaining. It wasn’t. An irate Swinney was forced to call his final timeout at 0:06. The Pac-12 crew did nothing to address its error. Alabama’s D.J. Pettway got a fingernail on Greg Huegel’s field-goal try. The game was still tied.
At the end, it was as it always is: Alabama in front, Alabama the national champ, Saban the emperor of all he surveys. And this night he was his team’s MVP.
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