An audacious onside kick. An electrifying kickoff return. A breakout by an underused tight end. Alabama needed something beyond its usual formula to hold off Clemson, but the end result was familiar: a fifth national title for coach Nick Saban
NICK SABAN'S game face typically ranges from stone to snarl, but the corners of his mouth turned north even as his team remained deadlocked with Clemson in the fourth quarter of Monday's national championship game. Was it relief? Joy? Or a knowing smirk?
At the team's hotel earlier in the day Saban had told Crimson Tide junior kicker Adam Griffith to be prepared to execute the pop kick onside protocol against the Tigers. Saban had noticed on film that when Clemson expected the ball to be booted deep into the corner, the Tigers squeezed to one side of the field. When Clemson lined up that way several times on Monday, Saban knew the pop kick could work—as long as freshman defensive back Marlon Humphrey, the play's target, didn't drop the ball the way he had in the Tide's walk-through practice. Tied at 24, with his defense panting from chasing Clemson sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson—who was dazzling with 405 yards passing and 73 on the ground—Saban decided Alabama needed to gamble. "He pushed all the chips in," strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran growled later.
Griffith tapped the ball skyward in a perfect arc. Humphrey, with nary a Clemson player in arm's distance, caught it on the 50, unleashing a (brief) grin from Saban. "He told us we're not allowed to smile during games," special teams coordinator Bobby Williams cracked. Two plays later senior quarterback Jake Coker hit junior tight end O.J. Howard down the left sideline for a 51-yard touchdown. The Tide had wrested the momentum away from a worthy opponent, and Alabama gutted out a 45--40 win to claim its fourth national title in seven seasons. Saban, who also won the 2003 title at LSU, moved one behind Bear Bryant, who won six championships. Saban brushed off questions about one day surpassing the Tide icon, but he couldn't hide his pride in a team that was written off in September but rose to win a title anyway, using a mix of new and old schemes and an attitude that has produced champions for as long as games have had scoreboards.
SABAN'S OFFICE can be an intimidating place even for a fellow head coach. There's the battleship-sized desk. The door that closes by remote control. The sitting area with the display of national championship rings glimmering on the coffee table. Tom Herman, Houston's first-year coach, sat in that office last April and wondered why he was the one answering the questions instead of asking them.
"Who the hell am I? Why are you asking me?" Herman, 40, remembers thinking. "You've got four national titles and how many wins?" Saban wanted to pick Herman's brain because Herman had served as the offensive coordinator on the Ohio State team that had jettisoned Alabama from the College Football Playoff three months earlier on its way to the national title. Herman had persuaded OSU coach Urban Meyer to juice the tempo of his offense, and the Buckeyes had created a fast-paced spread system anchored by a power run game while playing ferocious, physical defense. Saban wanted to understand how. How do you pace practice? When do you pit the first-team offense against the first-team defense? Do you still run some under-center plays to give your defense experience with them? "Here's this guy at what would seemingly be the top of the mountain," Herman says, "and he's always looking for ways to get better."
The Saban who stands behind a lectern at press conferences seems to know all the answers. Behind the scenes, he is one of the sport's most inquisitive minds. Even though only three years elapsed between his most recent national titles, Saban felt compelled to seek out schematic changes that pushed the Tide back atop that mountain Herman mentioned. Meanwhile, Saban has sought new ways to instill a time-tested mind-set in the Twitter generation. Alabama has the usual nine assistant coaches, as well as five strength coaches, but the program also employs three consultants who concentrate on the players' mental fitness. Most programs use one, if that.
Though Saban brands it better than most, the belief system he calls the Process isn't that revolutionary. Players must ignore big-picture goals and focus on dominating the task at hand, be it a play, a bench-press rep or a math test. Coaches, CEOs and moms have preached this line of thinking for decades. What makes Saban's staff special is its ability to get a large group of 18- to 22-year-olds to embrace this philosophy year after year. "When I first started this, I probably had the same approach with everybody and thought everybody should buy into that approach," Saban says. "Now it's more the individual and what makes it happen for him, because success is always tied to action, but action is always tied to your thoughts."
That's why Cochran, Saban's player development consigliere for 12 seasons, routinely consults with the trio of mental experts. There's Lionel Rosen, the Michigan State psychiatry professor who introduced Saban to the Process in the late 1990s, when Saban coached the Spartans. The white-bearded Rosen's colleagues refer to him as Gandalf. Then there's Trevor Moawad, who specializes in mental training and leadership, and Kevin Elko, who specializes in motivation. The "recent calls" list on Cochran's cellphone is filled with the numbers of those three. "There may be a few to my wife," Cochran jokes.
Saban spent this off-season preaching to his team about the "illusion of choice." While it seemed the players had a wide range of options for their personal and football lives, Saban and his staff stressed to them that only a narrow set of choices would lead to the success they craved. The 2014 team didn't make those choices, and it got bounced by the Buckeyes in the Sugar Bowl. Senior linebacker Reggie Ragland couldn't forget how the silence in the Superdome locker room after that loss was broken only by the crying of outgoing senior Blake Sims, who wouldn't get another chance to chase a national title as Alabama's quarterback. "I see it all the time," Ragland says. "I could be lying in bed, and it just pops up in my head. I can't believe it happened."
A core group of respected players that included Ragland, junior tailback Derrick Henry, senior center Ryan Kelly, sophomore offensive tackle Cam Robinson and defensive ends A'Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed resolved to never feel that way again. If they saw a teammate slacking, they would prod and shame that player. How did the veterans know the youngsters would fall in line? "Do you see A'Shawn?" Ragland asked as he pointed at the bald, bearded 312-pounder who has been mistaken for a coach since high school.
WITH THE team's attitude properly adjusted and self-policed, coaches could concentrate on strategic adjustments that made the Tide look quite different at times from the squad that won three national titles from 2009 through '12. A change in the play-clock rules before the '08 season moved the sport into a period of rapid evolution, and it forced Saban to alter schemes that had won the rings on his coffee table. The Crimson Tide's '12 title team huddled before most plays. It didn't use Jet motion, which requires a receiver to come sprinting horizontally across the formation and arrive at the quarterback just after the snap. The Alabama defense featured safeties who weighed more than 200 pounds.
In 2015 the Tide often ditched the huddle and cranked the tempo. Some plays looked borrowed from the Ohio State or Oregon playbooks. When Alabama played nickel to counter spread offenses, all five defensive backs were current or former cornerbacks who weighed less than 200 pounds and had enough speed to cover a receiver streaking across the field.
The addition of Jet motion and other concepts from spread schemes allowed Alabama to force defenses to guard the perimeter even when the Tide planned to run between the tackles. The lighter, faster secondary, combined with a deep, dominant front seven, helped Alabama apply more pressure on quarterbacks, cut down on coverage busts and slash its passing yards allowed by nearly 40 per game.
Still, the evolution involved some trial and error. Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin decided before the Tide played Ole Miss on Sept. 19 that sophomore Cooper Bateman should start at quarterback instead of Coker, who had started Alabama's first two games. Coker kept his mouth shut, but inside he seethed. "The reasoning was athleticism," says Coker, who transferred from Florida State to Alabama in 2014 with a reputation as a relatively stationary pocket passer. "That's what was laid out for me."
Kiffin sensed Coker's anger, and it delighted the coordinator. "We don't expect you to agree with this decision," Kiffin remembers telling Coker. "If you agree with it, you're not competitive. We expect you to go prove it wrong."
Coker got his chance in the second quarter. Bateman went to the sideline after throwing a ball up for grabs and then getting clobbered by an Ole Miss player during safety Trae Elston's interception return. When Coker entered, Alabama trailed by two touchdowns thanks in part to that interception and two fumbled kickoffs. On Coker's first possession he scrambled 15 yards on a third-and-10 to keep the drive alive and set up a touchdown pass to senior receiver Richard Mullaney. Coker couldn't win the game—the Rebels held on for a 43--37 victory—but he did win the respect of the team. Players loved his willingness to put his shoulder down to gain extra yards. And as opponents who flushed Coker from the pocket on third downs learned the hard way, the 6'5" 232-pounder from Mobile could deliver punishment. When Coker flattened Texas A&M sophomore cornerback Nick Harvey with a forearm shiver along the sideline during Alabama's 41--23 win in College Station, it inspired Coker's teammates to create nicknames for him that included Baby Roethlisberger and Vanilla Vick.
WHILE TIDE coaches solved their quarterback dilemma against Ole Miss, they still had to deal with the fallout from the loss. They had committed five turnovers and run 101 plays. Neither of those stats was representative of a Saban team, but the first was a result of disastrous errors and the second a result of an intentional shift to a faster-paced offense. On Saban's Hey Coach radio show the following Thursday night, a caller named Joe from Hartselle, Ala., scolded Saban for getting away from "old-fashioned smashmouth Alabama football." Saban put his chin in his hand and agreed. "Hey, Joe, I'm all right with that," Saban said. "I like that kind of ball."
Then Saban straightened up and offered a lecture on how the Tide and their opponents had changed in recent years. No longer could Alabama's offense simply enforce its will. The rest of the SEC West had recruited too well—especially on the defensive line—and the Tide couldn't always thrive by running between the tackles to set up the play-action pass. Saban explained that Alabama had needed to adopt some of the same up-tempo, spread-the-field principles embraced by Ole Miss, Texas A&M and most of the schools in the Big 12. There would be times when Alabama could chew up yards inside the hashmarks, but there would be others when the Tide would need to snap the ball quickly and attack the perimeter. "Those things are very effective, and they're very difficult to defend," Saban told Joe. "If you don't do some of that, you're not taking advantage of the rules."
Alabama's offense succeeded from that point forward because the Tide figured out how to play the old-fashioned way when necessary and how to play the hurried-up, wide-open style when that offered more scoring opportunities. Cutting down on turnovers—Alabama committed only 10 in 12 games after the Ole Miss loss—forced opponents to traverse the length of the field against the Tide's smothering defense. This allowed Alabama to adopt a more conservative offense that worked because it has a jumbo tailback who plays as if he's made of iron. Toward the end of the regular season the Tide leaned heavily on the 6'3", 242-pound Henry to consume yards and clock. Alabama has tried under Saban to platoon its backs to keep them fresh and healthy, but a series of injuries to senior Kenyan Drake forced Henry to carry most of the load. This suited Henry fine; while most backs wear down, Henry seemed to get stronger with each carry.
Tide coaches truly understood what kind of weapon they had in a 30--16 win against LSU. As Bama's defense held presumptive Heisman Trophy favorite Leonard Fournette to 31 yards on 19 carries, Henry carried 38 times for 210 yards and three touchdowns. The Tide bled the final 9:18 from the clock by handing to Henry on 10 of 13 plays. Henry traded places with Fournette that night, and Henry sealed his Heisman win by gaining 460 yards on 90 carries in wins against Auburn in the Iron Bowl and Florida in the SEC championship game. "I think it's a mind-set," Alabama senior fullback Michael Nysewander says of Henry's ability to boost his power as his workload increases. "When his body starts to wear down, his mind tells it no."
But even the Heisman recipient couldn't carry the offense against certain defenses. In the Cotton Bowl, Michigan State crammed the box to stuff Henry. Kiffin had Coker poke around the outside of the defense with bubble screens until the Tide got the matchup they craved: Freshman receiver Calvin Ridley lined up in the slot against a safety, who stood no chance. Twice Coker exploited this mismatch for 50-yard gains, and he wound up completing 25 of 30 passes for 286 yards and two touchdowns in a 38--0 win.
While the offense needed time to find its way, Alabama's defense never wavered. The preseason shift of 194-pound junior Eddie Jackson to safety to team with 196-pound senior Geno Matias-Smith made the Tide less susceptible to long passing plays, and the rotation of fresh defensive linemen allowed Alabama to torture opposing quarterbacks. Robinson and Reed, who had evolved into leaders, set a tone that filtered through the entire defense. This attitude wasn't limited to games. "Just ask Blake Barnett, our scout quarterback. We have to peel them off him each day," says defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who remained to coach the wins against Michigan State and Clemson even though he'd already been named coach at Georgia. "You can't say statistically they're the best, because maybe they're not as good as 2011," Smart says of this year's D. "But they are the most fun to coach."
WITH WATSON channeling former Texas quarterback Vince Young and Clemson's defensive end combo of Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd battering Coker, Alabama needed to win the third phase of the game on Monday—especially after the Tigers recovered from the onside kick—Howard touchdown combo and quickly drove for a field goal that cut the Tide's lead to 31--27. Enter Drake, who took the ensuing kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown. After Watson led the Tigers to another TD, Coker, who finished 16 of 25 for 335 yards and two touchdowns, hit Howard for a 63-yard gain to the Clemson 14-yard line. Kiffin had promised in August that the Tide would get the 6'6", 242-pound Howard more involved this year; he just didn't specify when. Howard entered Monday with only 394 receiving yards this season. Against Clemson, he caught five passes for 208 yards and two touchdowns.
That so many clutch performers rose when needed only reinforced why this team made Saban prouder than any group he's coached. While preparing for Clemson, Saban noticed the toll 14 games had taken. Practices weren't crisp. Players were aching and fatigued. Again, he reminded them that they had a choice. "Are you going to choose to do things you need to do to accomplish the goal that you have?" Saban asked his team. On Monday he got his answer. "They did it," he says.
Now that Saban has proven he can win a title with a higher tempo offense, well-timed trickery and even the occasional smile, does this mean he's gone soft? Will Joe from Hartselle ever get his old-fashioned, smashmouth Alabama football back? Terry Saban, who has watched her husband coach longer than anyone, isn't worried. "Everything is relative," she says. "Even if he's softened compared to where he started, he's still pretty ferocious."
SABAN'S KICKOFF GAMBLE FORCED A CHANGE IN THE TIDE. "HE PUSHED ALL THE CHIPS IN," COCHRAN SAID.
"WE DON'T EXPECT YOU TO AGREE," KIFFIN TOLD COKER. "WE EXPECT YOU TO GO PROVE IT WRONG."
Photograph by John W. McDonough For Sports Illustrated
STRETCH MARK He lost 11 games to injury over the last two years, but Drake delivered a game-breaking 95-yard kick-six in the fourth quarter to help the Tide rise.
Photograph by John W. McDonough For Sports Illustrated
CATCH A SMILE A successful onside kick caused Saban to grin, while Howard's second 50-yard-plus touchdown catch made all of Tide nation happy.
ESPN (SABAN SCREENGRAB)
[See caption above]
Photograph by John W. McDonough For Sports Illustrated
PITCHERS' DUEL Coker threw for 335 yards and two touchdowns, but he needed help to keep up with Watson, who dodged pressure while throwing for four scores.
ROBERT BECK FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (WATSON)
[See caption above]
Photographs by John W. McDonough For Sports Illustrated
POWER AND POP Henry kept the Tide close with the second of his three TDs (above), while a special teams surprise by Griffith (top) and Humphrey (26) helped Bama score 24 in the fourth quarter.
SIMON BRUTY FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (KICK)
[See caption above]
AL TIELEMANS FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (RECOVERY)
[See caption above]