GLENDALE, Ariz.—Nick Saban cringes at comparisons to Paul “Bear’’ Bryant.
“First of all, Bear Bryant has to be the greatest coach ever in college football,’’ Saban said. “Alabama would not be what it is—the job I have would not be what it is—if it wasn’t for Bear Bryant and all that he did.’’
The Saban-Bryant comparisons are only going to grow now, though. And deservedly so.
Alabama’s 45-40 win over Clemson before a crowd of 75,765 pretty much assures that.
The Crimson Tide notched its fourth title in seven years under the stellar reign of Saban. Including his championship at LSU, this is the fifth national championship for Saban. Bryant won six titles at Alabama.
To do what Saban has done in this college-football era, which is so competitive and so demanding, is remarkable.
“I hate to say `favorite team’ because I love them all,” Saban said. “But this team has come so far because of their spirit. I’ve never been prouder of a group of guys. They’ve overcome so much to get here. We didn’t play our best game tonight, but they did what they had to do to win.”
Not only are Saban-Bryant comparisons reasonable. This Alabama run is one of the most remarkable college football has seen, especially considering how close the Tide has come in the years when it didn’t reach its No. 1 goal.
“He’s the best I’ve ever been around,’’ quarterback Jake Coker said. “He’s proven that time and time again. As long as he’s at Alabama, Alabama is going to be at the top. He’s a special person.’’
In a testament to the work of Saban and his staff, Alabama prevailed against a Clemson that was surprisingly strong, but left the door open for the Crimson Tide due to crucial mistakes.
A pair of blown coverages allowed junior tight end O.J. Howard to make touchdown catches of 53 and 51 yards. An onside kickoff recovery by Alabama set up the second of Howard’s TDs.
A 95-yard kickoff return gave the Crimson Tide a 38-27 lead with 7:31 to play. And when Clemson closed to 38-33, Howard broke free for a 63-yard catch to the Tigers’ 14 yardline that set up a clinching TD.
Yes, it was that kind of a dramatic and entertaining title game.
Fans who wanted a good football game, rather than one team to dominate, got their wish.
Clemson, which had a slight yardage edge (219 to 195), did more good things in a 14-14 first half. But it also was on the wrong side of the two biggest plays of the first 30 minutes.
It was singed by Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry for a 50-yard touchdown run up the gut. And Deshaun Watson spoiled an impressive performance with an interception. That lone first-half turnover set up the Crimson Tide’s other TD, on a one-yard run by Henry, who finished with 158 yards and 3 TDs. Watson passed for 405 yards and 4 TDs, and Clemson outgained Bama 550-473. All in all, it was a great effort against the Tide’s tough defense. It wasn’t enough.
When the Crimson Tide broke a 14-14 halftime tie and nudged ahead 21-17, the Tigers punched right back. They put together an impressive 60-yard drive capped by a one-yard touchdown from Wayne Gallman, who muscled in against Alabama’s interior wall.
Clemson took that 24-21 lead into the fourth quarter, but Alabama struck for 10 points in just 49 seconds to go ahead 31-24 against the stunned Tigers.
First the Tide made an onside kick work, lobbing a wide flyball that was caught outside narrowly spaced Clemson. Then Howard caught his 51-yard TD.
And so, Clemson came up tantalizingly short of its primary goal, to win its first national championship since 1981.
But it felt it accomplished its secondary goal on this national championship stage—to prove that the Tigers are no fluke–that they can continue to compete at the highet level.
“You’ve got to slay a dragon,’’ Swinney said, summing up the Alabama challenge. “Everybody knows that when [they’re] trying to beat Alabama. But we’re going to stay relevant. We’re not going away. [This] makes people on the outside take a little bit closer look at what we’ve done as a program, and the consistency that we’ve had, because it’s really been remarkable. Remarkable.’’
It just wasn’t enough against the powerhouse that Alabama football has become under Nick Saban.