Shortly before the press conference for the losing team was to begin in the early hours of Tuesday, Alabama coach Nick Saban walked out into where the media were seated, found his wife Terri, embraced her and quietly told her, “I love you.”
His dejection was obvious and understandable. The Crimson Tide had just lost to Clemson in the most heart-breaking fashion imaginable when Deshaun Watson hit Hunter Renfrow in the end zone with one second left to play. As the Tigers were on the field celebrating their first national championship in 35 years, Saban attempted to do something at which he has very little experience. He tried to explain how his defense could not hold a lead with two minutes to play.
In the days leading up to the national championship game, Saban had reiterated something he has said many times. The pain of losing far exceeds the joy of winning. That’s especially true when you’re on the wrong end of one of the greatest college football games of all time.
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“Every loss, if you’re a competitor, is never good,” Saban said. “But these kind, when you had a great season and the players had done so much to create an opportunity, it’s tough to lose this way.
By “this way,” Saban apparently was referring to the epic finish. But he also could have been referring to the way the Crimson Tide played. They committed nine penalties. None was more critical than a pass interference call on cornerback Anthony Avery that gave Clemson first-and-goal at the 2-yard line with six seconds left instead of third-and-goal at the 9.
Earlier, J.K. Scott, one of the top punters in the country, shanked a punt from his end zone 30 yards, giving Watson a short field.
The victory-formation kneel-down, after Clemson kicker Greg Huegel recovered his onside kick, was the Tigers’ 99th play of the night. Fourteen of those plays came on Clemson’s final two possessions – both touchdowns – over the final 6:33. The last nine came after Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts ran 30 yards to put ’Bama back up, 31-28 with 2:01 left.
C.J. Fuller returned Adam Griffith’s short kickoff to the Clemson 32. That gave Watson just enough room and time.
The loss was uncharacteristic in many other ways. It was the first time in Saban’s 10 years at Alabama that the Crimson Tide lost in the national championship game.
They were 14-0 going into Monday night’s game and had been ranked No. 1 all season. As the dominating wins mounted, so did the air of invincibility. Some analysts were beginning to wonder if this was Saban’s best team ever.
There is no way to make that claim now. However, this may well have been his best coaching job ever.
Yeah, the defense was historically great. But lest we forget, it was missing two key players in linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton and free safety Eddie Jackson, who was also a threat as a punt returner. They missed Jackson, especially Monday night. It’s hard enough to try to defend Watson at full strength. Losing your best defensive back and leader of the secondary made it more difficult.
That’s not to make excuses for a loss. Injuries are part of sports, and especially football. But not all injuries have the same impact.
Meanwhile, the offense had its weaknesses exposed as the season wore on. After an impressive start, quarterback Jalen Hurts played like we would expect a true freshman to play. Watson had one great game two years ago as a true freshman before blossoming into one of the best players in college football as a sophomore.
The game is supposed to slow down in a player’s eyes. But the opposite seemed to happen with Hurts as defensive coordinators found ways to confuse him. But Alabama’s offensive struggles weren’t all on Hurts. The offensive line, which was a question mark going into the season, was not as dominant as we are used to seeing with Alabama. Even left tackle Cam Robinson, who will be one of the first offensive linemen selected in the draft, committed too many false start penalties. Receivers dropped passes.
Alabama had 16 full possessions, not counting the final one of the half when the Tide ran a single play before letting the clock expire. The Tide punted 11 times. Seven of those possessions were three-and-out.
Still, the offense put up enough points to win. For a Nick Saban team to score 30 or more points in a loss is rare. This was only the fifth time in his 19 losses at Alabama.
Saban called the team “a bunch of winners” and said “I don’t think one game defines who you are, you know, as a person, as a competitor, or as a team and certainly not define what this group of young men was able to accomplish this year.”
More from Saban: “So I think the perseverance and the resiliency that this team has showed certainly makes them winners in my book, and I’ll always remember them for that.”
That might not seem popular to the majority of the fan base that likes to count national championships. But it’s the truth.