In this bizarre and tumultuous NCAA season, the relentless Crimson Tide handled everything thrown at them and made their case as the best Nick Saban team—and maybe of all-time.
On the morning of Nov. 28, Nick Saban put on a gray suit and a red tie to prepare himself for the Iron Bowl rivalry game against Auburn. But he never left the house.
Saban had tested positive for COVID-19—for the second time, actually, with the other being a false positive one month earlier. This time it was real, and the 69-year-old legend-in-residence at Alabama would miss the game that always matters most to Crimson Tide fans. This was the 2020 college football season in a nutshell: anyone could be sidelined at any time.
“I sat here and felt a little helpless,” Saban said. “It was really hard, especially given the fact that I felt great.”
As it turned out, nothing could deter the Tide from rolling relentlessly to victory—not even the absence of their coach. They walloped Auburn, 42–13, one of a succession of dominant performances in an undefeated season that culminated Monday night with a national championship blowout of Ohio State, 52–24. In a pandemic season that will forever be remembered for its uncertainty and upheaval, there was just one sure thing.
This is national championship No. 7 for Saban, surpassing Bear Bryant and further establishing his credentials as the greatest coach in college football history. But it is just his second undefeated team, and first since 2009. To roll through any season without a loss is an accomplishment; to roll through thisseason with a perfect record is incredible.
There were none of the usual soft spots in the schedule, no opponents from the FCS or low-FBS levels. Alabama played 11 Southeastern Conference games, two more than usual, and faced all the best competition in the nation’s best league. Six teams other than ‘Bama finished .500 or better, and the Tide whipped them all.
They crushed a Texas A&M team that finished No. 5 in the College Football Playoff selection committee rankings. They put together a second-half blowout of a Georgia team that was in the top 10. They withstood explosive Florida in the SEC championship, their only one-score victory of the season.
And in the playoff, the Tide coasted past 10–1 Notre Dame by 17 points in the semifinals before facing undefeated Ohio State in a game that was expected to be a competitive shootout. It turned out to be another instance of the Bama offensive machine destroying everything in its path.
Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith capped what was arguably the greatest FBS season ever for a wide receiver with what was inarguably the greatest first half of football by any player in the seven-year history of the CFP. The “Slim Reaper” took a scythe to the Ohio State secondary, slicing it to pieces: 12 catches, 215 yards and three touchdowns in the first 30 minutes.
The skinny man, listed at 175 pounds, was impossible to cover or corral once he caught the ball—offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian schemed Smith into open spaces and mismatches against a shaky Ohio State defense with breathtaking ease. In a sport that has always favored the biggest and strongest, this season was a triumph for an understated guy who looks too spindly to crush teams’ souls. But he took them all.
Smith played just two snaps of the second half before dislocating a finger, preventing him from putting even more outrageous numbers on the board.
“Heavens knows what he would have done if he played the whole game,” Saban said. “You’re talking about the ultimate warrior and the ultimate competitor.”
As it is, this was a brilliant valediction to a college career spent largely in the shadows of other great Alabama receivers until taking over the spotlight five games into his senior season. From that point forward, there was no stopping the guy his teammates call “Smitty,” or this entire Crimson Tide team.
The last time Alabama even trailed was the third quarter of the fourth game of the season, against Georgia. That was nearly three months ago. Only twice all season was Bama playing from behind, however briefly (the other was against Mississippi). It never trailed by more than a touchdown, and never for long.
So it is fair to look at the dominance, the consistent excellence, and ask the kind of questions Saban hates to answer: is this the best of all his national champions, and possibly the best team ever?
“This team accomplished more than any team,” Saban said, not quite going there, but at least coming close. “… I think there’s quite a bit to write about when it comes to the legacy of this team.”
Saban’s quarterback, Mac Jones, went ahead and made the definitive statement: “I think we’re the best team to ever play.”
No blemishes on the record. Few close games. The most potent offense in school history, averaging 48.5 points and 542 yards per game. A defense that improved as the season went along, holding eight opponents to fewer than 20 points. An average victory margin of 30 points per game, largest in the Saban era. And even the customary weak link, place kicking, was strengthened by the ascendance of sophomore Will Reichard, who merely made everything—14 for 14 on field goals, 84 for 84 on extra points.
This was a complete—and completely dominant—team.
The cornerstones were laid in February 2017. Alabama signed the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, which was hardly a surprise in the Saban Era. But there was both precocity and longevity at work in this group, which would win bookend national titles.
Less than a year after signing letters of intent, freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa would come off the bench to rescue the Tide in the national championship game against Georgia. The walk-off touchdown play in overtime was a stunning, second-down bomb hauled in by fellow freshman Smith—just his seventh catch of the season. It was the precursor of great things to come for that class.
The 2018 Alabama team looked like an all-time great, revving up the offense with Tagovailoa running the show and throwing to a dazzling quartet of young receivers: sophomores Smith, Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs, plus freshman Jaylen Waddle. But that undefeated team had a full-system breakdown in the title game against Clemson, being blown out 44–16. While the Tigers themselves were one of the best teams of the 21st century, it remains somewhat mysterious how that Alabama team collapsed in the final act.
In 2019, Alabama ran into two impediments it could not overcome—the LSU offensive machine and a season-ending hip injury to Tagovailoa. After making the College Football Playoff in each of its first five iterations, the Tide were eliminated with a 48–45 loss at Auburn. A big reason why Bama was beaten that day: quarterback Jones, making his first SEC start after replacing Tagovailoa, threw two pick-sixes.
Despite those disastrous plays, Jones showed something that day. He completed 26 of 39 passes for 335 yards and four touchdowns. He battled. He kept coming, even after big mistakes. The redshirt sophomore—another member of the Class of 2017—looked like he could handle the full-time starter role in 2020.
But he would have to hold off five-star incoming freshman Bryce Young. And then there was the question of how many of Jones’s fellow offensive teammates were going to the NFL.
Tagovailoa, as expected, moved on. So did Jeudy and Ruggs and offensive tackle Jedrick Wills—all four of them would be first-round picks. But just as significantly, Smith and offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood and running back Najee Harris all opted to stay at Alabama. They could have been drafted, but not as high as they might after one more productive season in college.
“We all agreed that, if we come back, we can't come back and walk through things and think that since we're coming back and going to be seniors that it can come easy to us,” Harris said. “We have to come back 100%, and show people the example of how we should practice and how we should play.”
Said Smith: “We had a mission. Everyone wanted to end things the right way.”
Consider that mission accomplished in the extreme. The senior class came back with a workaholic vengeance, determined to finish on a higher note. Days off spent in the weight room and film room, downtime spent running routes and catching passes—this Alabama team is an extension of Saban’s meticulous and driven personality.
“I know Coach Saban has said this time and time again, but the maturity on this team is really high,” offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said. “Through a year when all of us—coaches, players, different teams, professional sports, college sports—have dealt with a lot with the pandemic, our leadership on our team has been tremendous and they've remained focused.”
The rewards for staying in school and staying focused have been abundant. Smith became the first wide receiver to win the Heisman Trophy since 1991, producing a massive season that has given him ownership of vast tracts of the Alabama record book. Jones was a Heisman finalist himself, leading the nation in pass efficiency and breaking the NCAA record in that department that was set last year by No. 1 NFL pick Joe Burrow. (Jones also took down Burrow’s CFP championship game record for passing yards Monday night, strafing the Buckeyes for 464.)
Harris finished fifth in the Heisman voting and improved his draft stock while turning in one of the highlight plays of the season—hurdling a Notre Dame defensive back, landing on his feet in stride and completing a 53-yard run. Leatherwood won the Outland Trophy as the nation’s premier offensive lineman, and may have moved himself into first-round draft status.
“We try to help our guys make business decisions,” Saban said. “Here’s where we think you're going to get picked if you come out right now. Here's the upside if you decide to come back. Football is a developmental game. I think all these guys that made those decisions certainly enhanced their value pretty dramatically by the way they played this year.”
“Success,” Saban said in late December, “is not a continuum. It’s momentary.”
That was an interesting comment from a coach whose success has strongly resembled a never-ending continuum. His teams have won at least 10 games for 13 straight seasons, with no end in sight. If anything seems self-sustaining, it’s Alabama football.
But Saban’s gift is an ability to continuously attack the Task of the Moment, knowing that they will accrue into big accomplishments. Actually it’s more than just an ability—it’s an enthusiasm for the small stuff. At age 69, he is as meticulously detail-oriented as he was at 38, when he got his first head-coaching job at Toledo.
“Everybody hears about ‘The Process,’” said tight end Miller Forristall. “I think in really simple terms, it's kind of the ability to be excellent in everything you do one day at a time. Not necessarily trying to look ahead, but be excellent in what he's going to do today and the task at hand, and he does that better than anyone. No one does it better consistently.”
Saban's sustained embrace of the daily grind of coaching is all the more interesting when you consider that he wanted no part of it after his playing days ended at Kent State almost half a century ago.
“I never really wanted to be a coach,” he said. “I think I have to give all the credit to Don James, who was my college coach, calling me in one day and saying, ‘I'd like for you to be a [graduate assistant].’ And I immediately responded that, ‘I'm tired of going to school, I don't really want to go to graduate school, and I don't want to be a coach, so why would I do something like this?’ ”
But James was persuasive, and Saban was in limbo at that point. He’d married his wife, Terry, while in college, after promising their parents they would both graduate. She had another year left at Kent State. So maybe he would hang around one more season as a G.A. to James.
“When I did it, I just absolutely loved it,” Saban said. “I think that it was a lot like being a player, except you didn't have to run wind sprints after practice or anything like that. But I liked the competitive nature of being a part of a team. And the preparation that goes into it was different, but it was something that was very self-satisfying. I feel very fortunate that I've been in a profession where I don't feel like I'm going to work every day because I really enjoy what I'm doing.”
Winning enhances enjoyment, of course. But success only resembles a continuum when there is a willingness to evolve along the way—even great coaches stop winning eventually if they don’t adapt.
The Process has had to include flexibility. Which is why Saban’s embrace of modern offensive football in his late 60s should be remembered as one of his most impressive career developments.
The man has coached teams that led the nation in scoring defense five times: his 2003 LSU national championship team; plus the 2011, ’12, ‘16 and ’17 teams at Alabama. Now he’s leading the nation’s best offensive team (though Kent State won the scoring title by averaging 49.8 points in just four games). This is all the more remarkable when you consider that the Tide lost Waddle to a broken ankle on the first play of the fifth game of the season, and lost All-American center Landon Dickerson to a torn ACL in the SEC championship game.
For the past three seasons, Alabama has ranked in the top three nationally in scoring. The Tide are one of just three programs in history to average more than 45 points in three or more seasons, joining Oregon and Baylor from earlier this century. The current team put together a string of 10 straight games scoring more than 40, and three straight scoring more than 50.
After seeing his defenses taxed by up-tempo, spread offenses in previous seasons, Saban opted to join the revolution instead of being left behind by it. Now Alabama is the model modern passing offense, where not long ago the Tide relied on defense and the running game.
“I think he realized seven or eight years ago, with the way things were going as a sport, that offenses could very easily neutralize defensive personnel,” said ESPN analyst Greg McElroy, who quarterbacked Alabama’s 2009 national championship team. “By making guys think and react, you’re making them just a little slower. Your five-star middle linebacker, if he can’t react quick enough, becomes a three-star pretty quickly. He recognized that you’re going to have to outscore some folks.”
Those folks included Ohio State, which came rolling into the championship game averaging 43.4 points. The Buckeyes dropped 49 on Clemson in a stunning semifinal upset, setting the stage for a shootout Monday night.
But this was no shootout. It was one more Alabama blowout, one more display of offensive artistry, one more exercise in domination. Ohio State was down three key players due to COVID-19 issues—two defensive linemen and its starting kicker—and then breakout running back Trey Sermon was injured on the first possession of the game and never returned. But the real problem was a complete inability to match up with Alabama’s skill players in space, or to consistently pressure Jones.
The Tide did what it wanted, when it wanted, with whom it wanted. Sarkisian, on his way to Texas on Tuesday as the new head coach of the Longhorns, could pick the poison he wanted to force-feed Ohio State. And the most lethal doses were with Smith.
Lining up often opposite highly touted Buckeyes cornerback Shaun Wade, Smith destroyed him. Wade had said last week he wanted to cover Smith, and before the game had progressed very far it was obvious that was a sentiment better left unsaid.
“It just worked out well for me and the team,” Smith said, his personality every bit as bland as his playing style is electric.
But Wade wasn’t alone in being overwhelmed by the Bama skill-position armada. Jones completed passes to five different receivers on the Tide’s first touchdown drive, including one to Waddle, who came back to play a limited role in the game. Alabama scored on five of its seven first-half possessions and eight of its first 10 for the game, putting it out of reach before the end of the third quarter.
The game ended with a touching homage to a senior class that wouldn’t walk away without this title: Dickerson, who shockingly suited up despite his knee injury Dec. 19, came in from the sidelines to snap the ball for Alabama’s final series of kneel-down plays. And when the clock ran out, Dickerson went and grabbed Saban around the waist, lifting him up high for a few sweet steps.
Mask in place, it was impossible to fully read the crusty coach’s emotions while being hoisted in the air. (One day they can put the Saban game mask in the College Football Hall of Fame, an artifact from a season unlike any other.) But perhaps more than any time in his unsurpassed coaching career, Nick Saban was assuredly enjoying the ride.