Even the great Nick Saban couldn’t get it done.
The hardest thing to do in sports just might be building a lasting dynasty in college football. In pro sports, repeats are not at all unusual, even three-peats. In college basketball, before the one-and-done era, teams frequently claimed back-to-back titles — heck, UCLA won seven in a row.
But in college football, even with change of the times, one thing remains constant: Championships are elusive, even for the best in the business.
This year’s Alabama team was all set for a dynastic run. The Tide rolled into Monday night’s College Football Playoff title game 14-0, on a 26-game winning streak, during which they were rarely challenged. They got up to a 14-0 lead and their opponent, Clemson, looked dispirited and dejected. Saban’s second consecutive title and fourth in six years appeared assured.
Then Deshaun Watson intervened. The Clemson quarterback, harried and harassed much of the game, came alive in the fourth quarter, directing three lengthy Tigers drives. He managed to extract three touchdowns from the Alabama defense in the final 15 minutes alone, the last on the game-winning 2-yard throw to Hunter Renfrow with 1 second left to give the Tigers an improbable 35-31 upset victory.
Clemson’s dramatic knockout of Alabama was very much reminiscent of the 2006 Rose Bowl, when Vince Young led Texas to a 41-38 victory over a USC team that was on a quest to win an unprecedented third straight national championship. Young’s virtuoso performance short-circuited the Trojans dynasty — they never returned to the national championship/playoff since. The same fate probably will not befall Crimson Tide, but this loss will haunt Saban for some time just as that Rose Bowl loss forever dogged Pete Carroll.
That USC team, led by back-to-back Heisman winners Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush, had won 34 in a row and was set to become the first team in the poll era (since 1936) to win three consecutive national championships. The Trojans’ defense wasn’t as stout as their teams from the previous two years but their offense was as dynamic as college football had ever seen. But against Texas, they let a 12-point, fourth-quarter lead slip away, the most pivotal moment being a fourth-and-2 that they failed to convert with 2 minutes to play that would’ve sealed the victory.
The men responsible for that fourth-and-2 call — an unsuccessful off-tackle run by LenDale White — were fatefully involved in Monday night’s dynasty killer once again, and on the wrong end of it.
Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian were the co-offensive coordinators under Carroll in 2005, and together they called plays for the Trojans. Kiffin would’ve been calling the plays for the Tide against Clemson, but he was prematurely “mutually parted” by Saban just a week before the game. In stepped Sarkisian, who took over the play-calling on short notice after spending the season as an offensive “analyst” on Saban’s staff.
Certainly Monday night’s outcome cannot be blamed on Sark, short notice or not. With a barely functioning quarterback — ‘Bama’s Jalen Hurts for much of the night didn’t look like a true freshman, but a high school senior — Sarkisian’s offense put up 31 points on Clemson. This game was lost on defense — Saban’s specialty, just as the 2005 title game was lost on defense — Carroll’s specialty.
Watson, reprising the role of Young, led Clemson on fourth-quarter drives of 72, 88 and 68 yards against the vaunted Alabama D, the last in just 2 minutes and 6 seconds, with one single second to spare. A year ago he tore up the Tide in a 45-40 loss with 405 passing yards. This year he somehow topped that with 420 passing yards.
The victory gave Clemson its first national title since 1981, and denied Saban a record-tying sixth championship, something he would’ve shared with Alabama’s legendary Bear Bryant. Just as the Tigers’ previous national title was won under a coach from Alabama — Danny Ford — this championship was corralled by another Tide grad, Dabo Swinney.
Few will shed tears for Alabama, of course. Ever since Saban’s arrival in 2007, the Tide have won their embarrassing share of titles, both of the SEC and the national variety. With another top recruiting haul coming to the Tuscaloosa campus — likely Saban’s fifth straight No. 1 class — Alabama should have ample opportunities to collect more hardware down the road.
Alabama should. But this goes to the ephemeral nature of sustained dominance in college football. Even the best of the best can’t manage to Win Forever (as coined by Pete Carroll). And Saban will rue the one that got away for a very long time.
Our final rankings: 1. Clemson, 2. Alabama, 3. USC, 4. Washington, 5. Penn State, 6. Ohio State, 7. Oklahoma, 8. Florida State, 9. Michigan, 10. Wisconsin.