Saban is the best to ever do it.
Atlanta – Admittedly, in recent years, I’ve been a little more hesitant to deem Nick Saban the greatest college football coach of all-time. Not because he hasn’t deserved to be in the conversation and not because such consideration hasn’t been warranted. Context, however, is a difficult concept to tackle. How do you compare Saban with Bear Bryant, given the dramatic differences in time and place? Late Monday night, in Alabama’s truly remarkable championship triumph over Georgia, I found my conviction, just not how or why I expected.
At halftime of the College Football Playoff Final, Alabama was absolutely overwhelmed offensively. The Crimson Tide, at that point, were shutout at the break for just the second time in Saban’s tenure and had only two drives of over seven yards. Quite frankly, Alabama looked outclassed. The prevailing assumption, though, was that Saban would have the Crimson Tide refocused and ready for the second half. He did.
What Saban did next was absolutely stunning, so much so that it will be long remembered as one of his signature moves. He changed his approach, changed his procedure and changed his quarterback; he likely changed the outcome of the game along the way.
Sophomore Jalen Hurts, 25-2 as a starter, was having a very good season. After nearly leading Alabama to a title as a true freshman, he had the nation’s best touchdown-to-interception ratio and was the only signal caller in the country with 800 yards rushing to complete 60% of his passes. Hurts was and is a key team leader. Sensing fleeting momentum, though, Saban benched Hurts for a true freshman with 53 attempts on the year: Tua Tagovailoa. Saban, suddenly, for better or worse, went with the Hawai’i-native down ten in the biggest game of the season.
Decisions are always best-judged in retrospect, so the fact that Tagovailoa finished with three touchdown passes, including an iconic and improbable 41-yard strike to DeVonta Smith in overtime, there is no questioning Saban’s call. That said, the initial feeling and follow-through of Saban to make an against-the-grain switch that, if it failed, would have opened his flawless resume up for criticism, shows a gumption that is simply beyond our grasps. Saban stuck with Tagovailoa with he threw a third-quarter interception and the situation looked grim. Somehow, Saban knew.
Saban, against all odds and on a national championship stage, took a leap of faith that wasn’t desperation, but determination.
Still, one would think, with plenty of years to go, Saban now has tied Bryant with six total championships. This most-recent one may, in some ways, be most-special of all. Saban might not have had the most talented team Monday night and sure didn’t have the most experienced or healthy one; what Alabama did have, however, was him.
Benching Hurts for Tagovailoa, along with turning to a number of true freshmen and trusting both his instincts and his young players, validates Saban as the greatest coach ever. Already on the edge in my book, this was the extra nudge past the line. No review is needed. Saban called his shot and the echo carried all of the way to a title. He now stands alone.
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