PHOENIX — The big crimson “A” stands for “Alabama.” It also stands for “aura.” There is no program like Nick Saban’s program. Maybe there has never been a program like Saban’s, not even previous manifestations of the one he heads.
Even Bear Bryant had peers, or nearly so. Alabama was mighty in the ’60s and ’70s, but so were Texas (Darrell Royal) and Southern Cal (John McKay, mostly) and Ohio State (Woody Hayes) and Notre Dame (Ara Parseghian into the post-Ara era) and Nebraska (Bob Devaney) and Oklahoma (Chuck Fairbanks to Barry Switzer).
Today there’s Alabama and everyone else. Often it feels as if there’s Alabama and nobody else. Urban Meyer has three national titles to Saban’s four, and Meyer and Ohio State beat Bama in last year’s semifinal, but Ohio State is not Alabama. (Didn’t see the Buckeyes in this playoff, did we?) Sometimes Alabama loses, but those always seem blips.
After the loss to Ohio State, Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart — soon bound for a school near you — called OSU offensive coordinator Tom Herman to ask how the Buckeyes had done it because, Smart said, he was having trouble viewing himself in the mirror. Alabama is not built to lose. Saban built Alabama to win forever, which it’s in the process of doing.
Which brings us to Clemson, Alabama’s opponent in Monday’s championship game. Clemson is the unbeaten champion of the ACC, which for the record has won a national title more recently than the SEC. Clemson is ranked No. 1. Clemson is roughly a touchdown underdog.
To stand a chance against Alabama, an opponent must first believe it belongs on the same field. Not many opponents do. (They hope, but hope isn’t belief.) Only once since Dec. 9, 2009, has Bama not been favored. That came Oct. 3, 2015, in Athens, and even before the game you could tell Georgia didn’t believe. It tried pregame bluster, which the visitors ignored. The Crimson Tide scored touchdowns on offense, on defense and on special teams. Georgia’s one touchdown cut the lead to 38-10.
Having covered that game and other Alabama games like it, this correspondent keeps batting around one question: Does Clemson believe? Having seen the Tigers twice in person — both times, as fate would have it, just after seeing Bama — I’m convinced Clemson has the across-the-board speed and heft and talent to approximate Alabama’s. But Notre Dame thought it had enough to give the Tide a run three Januarys ago, and the halftime score was 28-nil.
To borrow from the philosopher Mike Tyson, everyone has a plan until getting hit in the mouth. Alabama hits every team harder than that team has ever been hit. Clemson has beaten Notre Dame, which wasn’t bad, and Oklahoma, which some folks thought was the best team entering the playoff, but Notre Dame and Oklahoma are not Alabama.
At Saturday’s Media Day, defensive end Shaq Lawson said: “We just have to attack them and be aggressive. Some people see the name on their jersey and play them by their brand. You just have to go out there and play your best game. That’s what I think Ole Miss (which beat Alabama this season and last) did.”
Lawson suffered a knee injury against Oklahoma. Coach Dabo Swinney said Sunday he expects him to play. Clemson insiders are less optimistic. Take away the Tigers’ best defender and their chances lessen. But even with Shaq, does Clemson have a real chance?
Yes, I say. Clemson is at worst the second-best team in the nation, and these Tigers don’t carry themselves as anybody’s Washington Generals.
From the linebacker Ben Boulware: “We’ve been the best team in the country since Day 1. We’ve known that; everyone else has known that. … We’ve just played loose all year. We’ve never really backed down or been scared of an opponent or a brand-name team because we know how good we are.”
Yeah, yeah. What’s a Clemson guy going to say? “I’m picking Bama by two touchdowns”? But the Tigers have faith in themselves and their quarterback and Deshaun Watson of Gainesville is the multi-talented type who has troubled Alabama’s defense. Smart will make it hard on him, but Watson is the best quarterback the Tide has faced in a postseason game since Tim Tebow.
Saban and Swinney held a joint news conference Sunday. Saban appeared impatient, even folding his arms when Dabo was speaking. (To be fair, Dabo can run on.) But the younger man didn’t appear goggle-eyed to be sharing a stage with the emperor of college football, and Dabo knows all about Alabama. He played there. He was on a national championship team there.
A few years ago, I’d have called Saban vs. Dabo the coaching equivalent of Tyson vs. Marvis Frazier. (That bout ended after 30 seconds.) But Dabo has grown into his job and he has built one heck of a team. It would be no surprise to this correspondent if the Alabama alum struck a blow against the empire. Call me crazy, but I can see Clemson winning.