Football coaches love clichés. Nick Saban doesn’t necessarily love tired-but-true phrases, but he certainly is not immune to them. On Saturday night in Atlanta, Saban did not utter a cliché. He found himself living inside of one.
Be careful what you wish for.
“Losing is no fun. It shouldn’t be fun. Neither is facing the prospect of losing, trailing for most of a football game, or having to watch your starting quarterback leave a game with an injury,” Saban said following a tank-battle, 35-28 victory over Georgia in the SEC championship. “But I say this all the time, and you know that I do: A night like this is when you find out who you really are. You discover your identity through adversity.”
Saban might not love clichés, but he really loves that word — adversity. Yet he and his teams rarely face it, even if they constantly try to convince us otherwise.
On paper, the Tide’s regular season was a rout of historic proportions, so much so their Atlanta rematch of January’s national title game with the Dawgs was framed by many as a mere formality — and why not? Their perfect 12-0 record was achieved through near-perfect play, averaging 49 points per game while surrendering less than 14. Their suddenly modern offense (reminder: Five years ago, Saban was the Grand Poobah of the anti-up-tempo campaign) was led by Heisman Trophy front-runner Tua Tagovailoa, who rarely stepped onto the field for the second half of games through the first half of the season.
As the crimson bulldozer picked up speed, the only competition seemed to be comparisons to the greatest college football teams of the past. The 1970s squads of Bear Bryant. The mid-’90s teams from Nebraska, Miami of 2001 and the USC Heisman factory that followed.
But those teams all had a kryptonite. Moments and circumstances that had pushed them to the brink and, looking back, provided the mettle that moved them into all-time legend status.
Where was this team’s 17-point deficit to Tennessee and fourth-quarter Iron Bowl comeback, like the Tide of ’79? Their second-half collapse and heart-stopping two-point win at Virginia Tech, like The U? Their weird loss to Cal or their off-field issues like the Trojans of ’03-04?
Heck, where was this team’s character-building loss that set up the big-stage comeback? You know, like the ones suffered by Saban’s national title teams of 2003 (at LSU), ’11, ’12, ’15 and a season ago?
To be clear, these aren’t the questions or desires of some sadistic press-box dweller. They were being asked of Saban himself.
During Friday’s pre-SEC championship game news conference, he detailed the benefits of an in-season loss as a reality check and teaching tool. But since his team hadn’t had one of those this season, he spent most of his time once again selling the room on Alabama adversity. He talked about injuries on special teams and backup players stepping up and how such issues alter roster chemistry. As he continued on like a real estate rookie pushing a timeshare presentation, one sportswriter texted to another: “This is even better than him asking us to write negative stuff about his own team.” Saban did that earlier this season. He did it last season, too.
Just two weeks ago, Tagovailoa had politely bristled at a suggestion that the 2018 Crimson Tide hadn’t been challenged or tested.
“I think anyone who would say that about us hasn’t really watched how we go about our business on a daily basis,” he said. “If you would like to see some real adversity, you should come and see one of our practices.”
But, Tua, the outside world isn’t allowed to watch those practices.
“Oh yeah,” he said, grinning. “Then you’ll just have to take my word for it.”
Turns out, after a decade full of unprecedented success, the real challenge for Bama comes in convincing others that the Tide — the supposedly heartless, mechanical, maniacal assembly line powered by The Process — have faced any adversity at all.
Yet another round of offseason coaching-staff turnover, a slew of injuries on defense, the nation’s most-covered quarterback controversy, multiple physical dings to Tagovailoa, the QB who won that duel, and a pair of slow first halves against The Citadel and Auburn to end the regular season. None of that had been enough to sway the masses toward any shred of sympathy or empathy of any other kind for the defending national champion.
As the season rode along, there was even a growing chorus of critics who said that the No. 1-ranked team in the land hadn’t fully earned that spot because of the ease with which it had disposed of its opponents. Again. How could we be certain that this team had the heart to fight back should it ever find itself in the midst of an actual fight?
That brawl finally happened, and there was nothing manufactured about the stumbling, slippery uphill climb that Alabama endured and ultimately survived Saturday night. Tagovailoa was in the dreaded sideline medical tent nearly as quickly as the game started, and was back in that tent in the second half. The Tide trailed at the half for the first time this season. They faced their largest deficit of the season. The first time they led the game was with 1 minute, 4 seconds remaining in the contest. All of this took place in front of a pro-Georgia crowd.
Yes, the end result was the same. Another win. Another perfect regular season, followed by another conference championship and another trip to the College Football Playoff. But in the CFP’s Age of the Eye Test, Alabama finally managed to raise some eyebrows.
Saban’s own brows were furrowed. After the game he scowled and he grumbled and his face had turned red via boiling blood.
But one got the feeling that, deep down, he totally loved it.
“It was really uncharacteristic for us to throw interceptions or drop passes like we did or not tackle like we should or execute like we should on every play,” the coach said after clinching his eighth SEC title and sixth at Alabama. “So now you get to coach. You remind your guys to focus on this play right now in front of you. Focus on what you have to do inside that play. You do that, and the big picture will happen.”
Jalen Hurts, the quarterback who lost his position battle to Tagovailoa, only to come back to take the injured QB1’s place and save the day versus Georgia on Saturday night, listened to Saban give a very similar speech during the official postgame news conference. When asked to elaborate, he simply smiled.
“What Coach said.”
In all fairness, Saban smiled, too. During that same media session, running back Josh Jacobs, who rushed for 83 yards and two touchdowns on only eight carries, criticized himself for some early sloppy play. His listening coach cracked a grin. The grin of a man eager to get back to Tuscaloosa so he could stuff his brand-new conference championship ring into an office drawer and get back to work. Back to the pleasurable misery that can come only from his beloved adversity.
“It’s not always good when you play bad and win,” Saban said. “That feels like you’ve been let off the hook. That’s the wrong lesson. But when I hear that our players are already talking about what they need to do better, then that tells me that there are lessons that have been learned. And that’s how you improve.”
So this is a 13-0, wire-to-wire, No. 1-ranked defending national champion that has won 12 games with relative ease and the 13th via a comeback led by a backup QB who had already won nearly 30 games as a starter and iced his third conference title. And the player he replaced might still win the Heisman Trophy this weekend, with nearly a month to heal before the next game.
That team truly believes it can improve between now and the start of the College Football Playoff? Truthfully, it might need to.
Alabama’s CFP semifinal opponent will be Oklahoma. The Sooners’ leaky defense ensures that no one will be placing them on the list of all-around great teams, but their nonstop offense makes that D little more than an asterisk, anyway. It’s a scoreboard-tilting points monster like nothing Alabama has seen this season, and the quarterback leading it, Kyler Murray, will be sitting alongside Tagovailoa as a Heisman finalist this weekend. But in order for them to truly stand toe-to-toe in the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl on Dec. 29, Tagovailoa must heal that high ankle sprain suffered against Georgia.
“There’s a lot to do between now and the end of the month, let alone any possible game after that,” Saban said Sunday afternoon after learning of the Oklahoma matchup. “A lot to do.”
In other words, over the next four weeks there should be plenty of adversity to go around.
Just how Saban likes it.