Clutching a water bottle in his left hand, Nick Saban donned a black hat announcing Alabama’s national championship and ascended the three steps leading to a platform placed at the 30 yard line of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. From there, looking down upon a riotous mob of players, coaches and support staff, he beamed. The smile spanned the distance from one ear to the other, contorting Saban’s face into an unfamiliar pose.
“I’ve never been happier in my life,” he said.
“It’s not just about winning a championship. I mean, I know that’s what you all write about and what you talk about and all that. But there’s more to it than that.”
And he cried — or, if he didn’t cry, Saban lost his typical composure. His smile dropped. His lips quivered. It was momentary, here and gone in a flash, but it represented the moment: Saban’s latest national title, the fifth at Alabama and his sixth overall, was the most improbable of all.
Meanwhile, senior defensive back Tony Brown sprinted across midfield and banked the turn toward the sideline while waving a championship banner. The Crimson Tide had returned to the summit of college football, so Brown replanted the flag.
“Last year, we had to watch the confetti fall on someone else,” said sophomore defensive back Deionte Thompson. “Now the confetti’s falling on us.”
In the tunnel leading into Alabama’s locker room, an Alabama staffer picked up Saban’s wife, Terry, turned her in the air and planted a kiss upon her right cheek. Terry Saban squealed. Running back Damien Harris sprinted up the concrete path with a message.
“People didn’t think we were supposed to be here! And we won …”
Then he added, kindly: “I love y’all. I love each and every one of y’all.”
In the locker room, one defensive lineman holding tight to a towel screamed to another, “They can’t do what we do!”
It was unlikely — the whole thing, and not just Monday night. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Alabama was not a powerhouse, or so it seemed. There were issues at quarterback. Injuries at linebacker. This team lost to Auburn, backed its way into the College Football Playoff, struggled to find a complete game. Against Georgia, the Crimson Tide trailed 13-0 at halftime and 20-7 minutes into the third quarter. They were on the ropes, and the Bulldogs were ready to wrestle away the crown. It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
“We’ve been through so much as a team,” said senior linebacker Rashaan Evans. “All of this stuff feels unreal to me.”
Then it was 20-10, then 20-13, then 20-20. Then, improbably, with a 41-yard touchdown pass on second-and-26, coming on the heels of a 16-yard loss, Alabama moved past Georgia in overtime. One year after Clemson broke their hearts, the Crimson Tide wouldn’t let another one get away.
But of course they didn’t. This is the greatest dynasty in the history of this sport, with five national titles in a nine-year span as proof, led by the greatest college coach to ever stalk the sidelines — that would be Saban. When pushed by Georgia, the dynasty rose to the surface. In the end, the Alabama dynasty may have been shaken by Clemson and temporarily wobbled by Georgia, but it would not be denied.
“We knew we were built for it. We knew we would not leave this field crying, red-and-white confetti falling. We wouldn’t,” sophomore linebacker Terrell Lewis said. “We were not going to leave this field without a win. We know what we felt last year. I knew I was not going to leave that field without a win.”
The end result was familiar. The Tide’s primary motivation — that no one believed in them — also rang familiar. The drive to prove the doubters wrong is a theme shared with each Alabama team, win or lose. It may just be that this team was doubted more than the rest.
“We knew that if we won this game, we could shut up all the critics,” said sophomore linebacker Mekhi Brown, who was involved in an unlikely furor on the sideline. “We feel like we’ve been disrespected the whole year. We felt like after Clemson we’d have our respect back, but that still didn’t bring any respect. We just had to win tonight to cancel all that. If we didn’t win it, people could’ve started questioning it.”
The path Alabama rode to the national championship, on the other hand, was unique. With this title added into the mix, the only constants of the five championship teams of the Saban-led era are the talent, the defense and Saban himself. Other teams steamrolled competition; this one scratched and clawed, and needed to be saved against Georgia by a handful of true freshman.
One was quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who entered the game to start the seond half and sparked the Tide’s second-half surge. Another was left tackle Alex Leatherwood, who replaced an injured Jonah Williams. A third was wide receiver DeVonta Smith, the recipient of Tagovailoa’s game-winning touchdown pass. Despite their youth and relative inexperience, the freshmen were ready — because they were prepared.
“This team is resilient,” senior center Bradley Bozeman said. “All the injuries, all the screw-ups, all the this, that and the other, we pushed through. And this game sums up our season.”
The decision to insert Tagovailoa — not an easy one, and one few, if any, other coaches in the country likely would make — should be a reminder: It might in fact be possible that Saban has not received enough credit for his work in building this dynasty. Twice in three years he’s made the right call when others would have been scared to roll the dice, with an onside kick that sparked a win against Clemson joined by the halftime change at quarterback. Saban, like his team, left nothing on the table.
“It shows you Saban is a mastermind,” Mekhi Brown said. “He knows how to put guys in great positions to make plays.”
Just hours earlier, Saban held the Crimson Tide in the halftime locker room while Georgia raced back onto the field and toward its sideline. Imaginations ran wild: Saban could be yelling, screaming, begging, pleading. But he was calm. Stay in your role, he said, and things will take care of themselves. We will not let this be taken away.
And then it happened. Georgia lost this game, and the Bulldogs will carry the weight of this disappointment for at least the next eight months – if not until the program finally gets over the hump and claims its own national championship. But Alabama also won this game. It won the game because it’s what Alabama does. The defining characteristic of this dynasty isn’t individual players, specific schemes or even Saban himself. It’s an ability to find whatever is needed. Alabama digs deeper than any other program in the country.
Again on Monday night, Alabama would not be denied. The dynasty continues, adding layers of history to an already unrivaled résumé. College football is split into two groups: Alabama first, and then everyone else.
“We’re a great team. We’re a legendary team,” Mekhi Brown said. “You can never question Bama. Never.”
Source: Paul Myerberg, USA TODAY Sports
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