By Jess Nicholas
Jan. 12, 2016
There was always supposed to be a point in the 2015 season when this Alabama Crimson Tide team would finally be knocked out of national title contention. So said all the experts.
It was a team without a quarterback, the pundits insisted. So Alabama made a serious run at Ohio State’s Braxton Miller, who was coming off a major shoulder injury. Miller opted to stay at Ohio State. He completed one pass in 2015 for three yards and spent most of his time at wide receiver, where he managed to log 341 yards and fall off everyone’s radar before Halloween.
Alabama then turned to Notre Dame transfer Everett Golson, who chose instead to go to Florida State. He started eight games, threw for less than 2,000 yards, and eventually left the team, citing “personal reasons.”
In Alabama’s third game of the year, its SEC opener, the Crimson Tide coaches chose to sit Jake Coker, who had started and won the first two games, in favor of sophomore Cooper Bateman. The decision proved to be one of the worst of the Nick Saban era, as Bateman played poorly and Alabama eventually lost to Ole Miss – although the margin was quite close in the end, thanks to Coker coming off the bench to rally the troops late.
At that point, Alabama was 2-1 on the season, effectively two games out of the SEC West lead thanks to Ole Miss owning the tiebreaker, and still with huge questions under center.
Three-plus months later, Alabama is stuck trying to carve out more space in its trophy case, as the hardware just keeps piling up: an SEC championship, a national championship, a Heisman Trophy, a Doak Walker Award, a Maxwell Award, a Walter Camp trophy. Yet somehow, Nick Saban managed to once again miss out on most coach of the year honors.
It is truly one of the mysteries of modern football how Saban can continue to get overlooked for things like the Bear Bryant Award. Coach-of-the-year trophies don’t go to the best coach; they go to the coach who most exceeded media expectations.
Perhaps that describes Nick Saban in 2015-2016, too.
Prior to the season, most people analyzed Alabama’s strengths thusly: Great front seven, solid running back, good special teams. There was little respect for a secondary that was being rebuilt, or an offensive line with three new starters, or a wide receiver corps that would eventually be led by a true freshman on one side and a former high school quarterback on the other. And the quarterback position? Alabama would have to win in spite of it, the conventional wisdom went.
On Jan. 11 in Glendale, Arizona, Clemson found out just how wrong the pundits were about some of Alabama’s supposed weaknesses.
Jake Coker finished the postseason with the following numbers: 59-of-81 (72.8%), 825 yards, 6 touchdowns, 0 interceptions. Most observers analyzing the Clemson game will rightly talk about the heroics of Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, but Coker’s numbers stand up against any comparisons.
But the big difference between Alabama and Clemson on Monday? It just might have been the internal focus. There’s something to be said for having done something before and knowing how to act in similar situations because of it. Some members of this team already had a national championship ring (or two). Most all had the experience of competing in college football’s Final Four a year ago. There were times against Clemson when Alabama was clearly able to draw on those experiences for strength, and allowed Alabama to brush off a handful of failures to stop Watson short of the end zone.
Make no mistake, Clemson brought a quality team to the table, one that proved surprisingly resilient in the face of the pounding it received from the larger, more physical Crimson Tide. A lesser Alabama team would not have been able to punch with Clemson after Watson led the Tigers to one scoring drive after another.
But this was a team determined to fulfill a singular purpose, and that was to bring home a national championship. The team’s leadership council opted to have the coaches withhold draft grade projections from the draft-eligible underclassmen until after this game was completed, so as not to have any undue distractions affect team preparation. This came after sending one of its key special teams players, Tony Brown, home for the playoffs following an altercation at practice. Alabama would do anything it took to reduce clutter.
There have been other Nick Saban-coached teams in Tuscaloosa that were expected to win championships; some did, some didn’t. Until it became obvious to everyone just how talented Alabama’s defensive front seven really was, the 2015 Crimson Tide weren’t really considered a title favorite in the preseason. This was going to be a blue-collar team with a lot of flaws. It might still be, but now, it is also champions.
Clemson looks like a good bet to be the frontrunner for the 2016 title. Deshaun Watson is back, as are many of Clemson’s weapons and key defensive players.
But don’t count out Alabama yet. After the job Alabama’s coaches did in turning around the fortunes of the 2015 team following the Ole Miss loss, nothing should be assumed. Especially not that Alabama lacks the talent, or especially the desire, to claim the end-of-season hardware.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Clemson:
1. As predicted, Alabama had a big lead in special teams, and it cost the Tigers. The onside kick call following Alabama tying the game at 24 may be Nick Saban’s call of a lifetime. It was also executed to perfection by placekicker Adam Griffith, who lob-wedged the ball to Marlon Humphrey and touched off a mini-meltdown on the Clemson sideline. This game was filled with stories of overlooked or discarded players making huge plays; Griffith was one, and so was RB Kenyan Drake, who broke the game open with a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Seeing Griffith and Drake succeed is one of the most satisfying elements of this game, as both have endured many hardships in their lives on the road to success. Griffith’s onside kick was in response to something Alabama coaches saw in Clemson’s wide-side alignment in return blocking, while Drake had already gotten to the corner once before on an earlier kickoff return and exposed Clemson’s lack of lane discipline. It is somewhat amazing – not to mention disturbing – that a modern contender with access to huge numbers of athletes on its roster can’t field better special teams, but Clemson has that problem now.
2. Injuries cut into Clemson’s gameplan. Some people don’t give injury luck the credit it deserves for derailing dreams. Some take a hardline approach to dealing with them, saying injuries are just part of the game and they have to be worked around, as if it were that simple. Clemson proved that sometimes, it is not. The Tigers lost CB Mackensie Alexander early on with a hamstring pull, and defensive end Shaq Lawson was slowed by knee trouble. Alexander’s loss cost the Tigers late, as Alabama TE O.J. Howard abused his replacement for a 63-yard catch that set up Derrick Henry’s final score. Middle linebacker Ben Boulware got dinged up, and running back Wayne Gallman suffered some kind of leg injury that turned into a nagging issue, once sending him to the locker room for further attention. Wide receiver Artavis Scott was also slowed by a leg injury. Meanwhile, Alabama emerged from the game largely unscathed, with only S Maurice Smith getting knocked out of the game late with a possible head injury. In what turned into a war of attrition, Clemson suffered injuries to its three best players on defense and two of its best three on offense. It couldn’t be overcome.
3. O.J. Howard’s breakout game came at the right time. Unfortunately, there’s a decent chance Alabama will lose Howard to the upcoming NFL Draft. It’s a shame, given Howard went shooting up the receiving stat list as a result of this game and gave everyone an eyefull of what he’s capable of doing when properly motivated. Every catch Howard made in this game was a key play, and three of those catches went for two long touchdowns plus a long catch to set up a third TD. It’s always interesting to see which players will step up in national title games, and Howard certainly picked the right moment to shine.
4. Jake Coker’s performance, although overshadowed by Watson’s, was no less important. Coker completed 16 of 25 passes (64.0%) for a whopping 335 yards and 2 scores. A late scramble for 5 yards set up Alabama at Clemson’s 3-yard line and allowed both for Derrick Henry to score a third touchdown and for Alabama to run some clock. Coker’s first half was nothing special, and he was too flustered by the continuous pressure coming over the Alabama offensive line’s right side. But Coker made adjustments at the half and began stepping into his throws. While Kevin Dodd continued to be an issue at defensive end (5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks), Coker and Alabama managed to keep the damage contained and not get out of its plan. Without Coker in 2015, Alabama likely would not have played for a national title, perhaps not even a conference title. Not a bad result for a lightly-regarded recruit who simply wanted to quarterback his boyhood dream team.
5. When the dust settled, the defense looked better than the stat sheets indicate. RB Wayne Gallman was held to 45 yards on 14 carries, a 3.2-yard average. More so that raw stats, Alabama managed to keep Clemson’s damage contained to whatever QB Deshaun Watson could do when scrambling from the pocket. Most of Clemson’s big plays came as the result of containment issues on Watson once he began to scramble.
Had Clemson had Michigan State’s Connor Cook as its quarterback, Alabama would probably have won by 25 points or more. Clemson’s conventional, called plays did only moderate damage – when they did any damage at all. And Alabama amplified every Clemson mistake. Watson threw one truly terrible pass; it was intercepted by Alabama’s Eddie Jackson, and the Crimson Tide got seven points off it.
Clemson failed to cover an onside kick properly, and Alabama ended up putting up 10 points in less than a minute. Alabama also came up big when it mattered; the Tide gave Clemson the ball near midfield following a mediocre punt, but picked a good time to force a rare three-and-out. Because of the massive amount of yardage run up by Watson and friends, it was hard to find defensive players to single out for praise, but DE D.J. Pettway played probably his best game at Alabama, harassing Watson and Gallman and blocking a field goal attempt. The speed rush tandem of Tim Williams and Rashaan Evans – primarily Evans – became a bane for Watson to face. Alabama won’t get many style points for yielding 40 points and 550 total yards, but it could have been much worse.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN