Nick Saban’s list of superlatives at Alabama is well-trod ground by now: the five national championships, the 11 straight seasons with at least some time spent at No. 1 in the rankings, the parade of five-star recruits who annually show up at his door to keep it all going.
Monday night’s loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff championship game was the opposite of all that. For Saban, it was pretty much the worst. Let us count the ways.
Tua Tagovailoa’s pick-six
It all started well for Alabama, which forced a three-and-out on Clemson’s opening possession. But on the third play of the Crimson Tide’s first drive, Tigers cornerback A.J. Terrell jumped a near-lateral pass from Tagovailoa that was intended for Jerry Jeudy, who barely had turned around to see the ball heading his way. Forty-four untouched yards later, Clemson was up 7-0.
“That was totally a bad decision,” Tagovailoa said after the game. “It was a poor decision on my part. I just think we came out, and we were killing ourselves. We shot ourselves in the foot by me throwing that interception for a touchdown and then not finishing drives the way we wanted to. Just didn’t go the way we wanted to.”
The halftime deficit
It wasn’t so much that Alabama trailed at halftime but rather the speed with which Clemson put up 31 points, which tied for the most a Saban-coached Crimson Tide team has allowed in the first two quarters (it matched the 31 first-half points Alabama gave up in a Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma in the 2013-14 season). The 31-16 halftime hole also was the biggest ever for Saban at Alabama.
This fake field goal attempt
Facing that halftime deficit, Alabama got the ball to begin the second half and started off well with gains of 15, 11 and 14 yards sandwiched around an ineligible-man-downfield penalty, plus a fourth-and-1 conversion from the Clemson 40. But the drive stalled at the Clemson 22 and, facing fourth and six, out came Joseph Bulovas for a 39-yard field goal attempt.
But instead of trying for the three points — Bulovas already had missed a first-quarter extra point — holder Mac Jones (the team’s third-string quarterback and one not known for his wheels) took the snap and tried to run for the first down with Alabama’s 206-pound kicker serving as his lead blocker. It was a dismal, desperate call: As you can see from Clemson’s backed-off defensive formation in the video, the Tigers seemed to know it was coming and stopped Jones well short of the first down. The rout continued.
“I think it was a poor decision on my part not to kick the field goal the first drive of the second half,” Saban said after the game. “We thought we had a really, really good fake, and somebody didn’t block the guy they were supposed to block, so it didn’t work, so it was a bad call. It’s always that way.”
Alabama gave up 34 points to Oklahoma in the College Football Playoff semifinals on Dec. 29, the most it ever had allowed in a game under Saban, but that contest never seemed in doubt: Alabama led 31-10 at halftime and won by 11. Just nine days later, Clemson lit up the scoreboard against Saban’s team once again and nearly topped the Sooners’ record in the first half before finishing with 44 points, the most a Saban-coached Alabama team ever has allowed.
That’s 78 points allowed in two games. Last season, on its way to its fifth national title under Saban, the Crimson Tide allowed 79 points combined in its final five games, and it was the worst two-game points-allowed stretch for one of his Alabama teams since the Crimson Tide gave up 79 points in losses to Auburn and Oklahoma at the end of the 2013-14 season.
Going back to the SEC championship game win over Georgia, Alabama gave up 106 points over its final three games. The last time a Saban-coached NCAA team surrendered at least that many points over a three-game stretch came in 1999, when he was at Michigan State (a 34-31 win over Michigan followed by losses of 52-28 and 40-10 to Purdue and Wisconsin, respectively).
The last time a Saban-coached team lost by more than 14 points came in December 2006, when his Miami Dolphins suffered a 21-0 loss to the Buffalo Bills.