There was no Gatorade shower for Nick Saban, no victory celebration on the field in front of fans who made the trip to Tampa and Tuscaloosa doesn’t have to worry about holding another parade.
But those things came oh-so-close to happening again for the University of Alabama football program. Seeing the national championship come down to the final play after rallying to re-take the lead with just 2:07 remaining…well, there’s a reason why the term “instant classic” was being mentioned everywhere else in the college football world.
Crimson Tide fans will get there, mostly. It’s just going to take a while for them to appreciate how incredible of a game the rematch with Clemson had been.
They’ll complain about how the Big 12 officiating crew never called a pick penalty on Clemson (and they have a good point on that), bemoan the change at offensive coordinator one week before the title game and wonder what might have happened had running back Bo Scarbrough not gotten hurt.
But Alabama lost the game on the field. Deep down even the most diehard Crimson Tide fans know that.
“We had our chances, and there’s nobody that we can blame but ourselves,” Saban said during his postgame press conference.
It’s in part because Saban can tip his hat to such a performance by quarterback Deshaun Watson and Clemson that he’ll probably be able to move on pretty quickly from this 35-31 loss.
Granted, it was heartbreaking. Yet considering the 12 other games Alabama had lost since 2008, it has a lot of company. It almost always takes something extreme to get a win against the Crimson Tide.
The Kick Six game against Auburn in 2013 is a good example. That also derailed a perfect season.
Alabama didn’t recover from that overnight, but it also didn’t let it linger and become more than a loss at a critical time. Saban and Co. simply moved on, just like what will happen this spring and summer.
The process never stops, and Saban self-evaluates the same whether the team wins or loses. He probably spent the flight back looking at game film, looking for ways to improve, just like he would have had Alabama won. That’s just who he is.
“We needed to get a sack,” Saban said about the final possessions. “We needed to get a takeaway. We needed to get a stop in the red zone, and they made the plays and we didn‘t.
“Look, there’s not one play in the game that makes a difference in a game. We could have done a lot of things a lot better. But I have to say that I was proud of the way our guys competed in the game, and just sorry for all of them that we didn‘t finish it better.”
For a good part of Monday’s game, Alabama was actually hitting a lot of its key benchmarks.
For example, Alabama was 38-0 under Saban when having at least a plus-two advantage in the turnover margin. Since 2008 it was 91-4 when rushing for at least 140 yards, and it was 106-6 when leading at halftime.
Alabama finished with a 2-0 edge in turnovers, tallied 221 rushing yards and had a 24-14 halftime lead.
Yet it still lost.
Watson threw for 420 yards and three touchdowns and ran in one more, while not having any interceptions. Alabama’s defense threw everything it had at him, and he shook off numerous hard-hitting blows.
“I never got the sense that he was rattled,” defensive end Jonathan Allen said.
Alabama also made a lot of the same mistakes it made against Washington in the Peach Bowl semifinal. It was a horrendous 2-of-15 on third downs and was flagged nine times for 82 yards.
The passing game also continued to struggle. True freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts finished 13-of-31 for 131 yards, roughly half of which came on his 68-yard touchdown pass to tight end O.J. Howard in the third quarter.
“We couldn’t get the ball going a lot on offense,” Howard said.
The offensive struggles had a direct impact on the defense, which was on the field for 99 snaps. Consequently, the game almost felt like a continuation of last year’s title game, when Clemson felt like it just ran out of time in the 45-40 loss.
There’s a reason why Jamelle Holieway (Oklahoma 1985) is the only true freshman quarterback to win a national championship, just like only two teams during the poll era have gone wire-to-wire as No. 1.
That all finally caught up to Alabama, which still only lost one game during the 2016 season. It just happened to be the one that mattered most.
What Alabama needs now is for Hurts to grow and develop before the start of next season. It also needs Hurts and new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian to have an offseason together instead of a week.
The offensive line needs another big anchor in the interior and the same could be said of the secondary, which missed the loss of injured safety Eddie Jackson.
He’s one of numerous standout defensive players who have played their last game for the Crimson Tide, along with Allen, Ryan Anderson, Reuben Foster, Dalvin Tomlinson and Tim Williams. That’s a talented group to try and replace, but Saban always seems to find a way.
Next year the defense will be still be good in terms of talent, just not as proven or experienced.
Offensively, though, Alabama only has two looming departures, left tackle Cam Robinson (who is expected to make himself eligible for the NFL draft) and Howard.
Eventually, the loss will serve as motivation for next year’s team, and Saban will use it in recruiting, saying things like “We really could have used you out there” while trying to finish with the nation’s best signing class—again.
They call that reloading in college football, and no one is better at it than Saban.
“Heck, they’ll probably be right back next year,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said during his postgame press conference. “Nick is going to buy my dinner this year, though.”
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.
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