TAMPA – I just couldn’t do it.
I could not pick No. 2 Clemson to beat No. 1 Alabama in Monday night’s national championship game at Raymond James Stadium.
There are a bunch of reasons to pick Clemson. Here are four.
• The Tigers have the best quarterback in college football (Deshaun Watson), who absolutely torched a great Alabama defense (405 yards passing, 73 yards rushing) in last season’s title game.
• Clemson has the revenge factor on its side. Despite Alabama’s 45-40 win, the Tigers walked off the field in Glendale, Ariz., last January convinced they were the better team. They’ve made no secret that this season has been about getting another shot at the Crimson Tide.
• Alabama will be playing the game with a new offensive coordinator (Steve Sarkisian) after it was announced Monday that Lane Kiffin was moving on to his new assignment as coach at Florida Atlantic. No matter how you slice it, that’s a distraction.
• Clemson is coming off its best game of the season, a 31-0 domination of Ohio State that was the first shutout of Urban Meyer’s career.
So I was tempted to pick Clemson because I have a lot of respect for what Dabo Swinney has built, which is a bona-fide national championship-level program.
But I kept coming back to this number: 12-1.
That’s 12 wins and one loss.
That’s Nick Saban’s record in games that have the word “championship” connected to them.
In five years at LSU and 10 years at Alabama, Saban has coached in eight SEC championship games. He is 7-1 in those games, the only loss coming to Tim Tebow and the Florida Gators (31-20) in 2008. That Florida team went on to win the national championship.
In that same span, Saban has coached in four BCS championships and one CFP championship game. He is 5-0 in those games.
So how does he do it?
One way he does it is by treating championship games like any other game.
“The funny thing is that he never changes his approach,” said former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy, who led the Crimson Tide to the 2009 SEC championship and the BCS national championship. “He’s not going to change who he is and magnify the situation. He views it just like another game.”
Last week, Saban emphasized that the primary job of his coaches is to put players in position to successfully execute the game plan. And if you’re obsessed with what the game means, you’re not focusing on the task at hand.
“He doesn’t want players to have a whole lot of anxiety,” said McElroy, who’s now an ESPN analyst. “He wants them to focus on the preparation and the amount of due diligence necessary to play at your best. The team never really gets a curveball thrown at them.”
Until this week, of course. Monday, this Alabama team got a major-league curve thrown its way when it was announced that Kiffin would not be with the team in Tampa.
Given Saban’s rock-solid belief in consistency when it comes to preparation, the decision that sent Kiffin packing at this late date is “highly unusual,” McElroy said.
But after Wednesday’s practice in Tuscaloosa, Saban said the transition to Sarkisian as offensive coordinator has been going “very well.”
“It’s been excellent. Positive and upbeat,” Saban told reporters. “Energy level has been good. Attitude been really, really good.”
And it sounds as if the Alabama players have moved on.
“When you guys (the media) hear ‘new offensive coordinator the week before playoff game,’ (you think) the world is coming to an end, but not here,” offensive tackle Cam Robinson told reporters. “We just go out and practice and do what we’ve been doing all year. It’s just a new voice. That’s it.”
Bottom line: As long as the familiar voice of Nick Saban and his 12-1 record in championship games remains in place, Alabama will go into Monday’s game with a lot of confidence.
Nick Saban in championship games
SEC CHAMPIONSHIP GAMES (7-1)
2001: LSU def. Tennessee 31-20
2003: LSU def. Georgia 34-13
2008: Alabama lost to Florida 31-20
2009: Alabama def. Florida 32-13
2012: Alabama def. Georgia 32-28
2014: Alabama def. Missouri 42-13
2015: Alabama def. Florida 29-15
2016: Alabama def. Florida 54-16
NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAMES (5-0)
2003: LSU def. Oklahoma 21-14
2009: Alabama def. Texas 37-21
2011: Alabama def. LSU 21-0
2012: Alabama def. Notre Dame 42-14
2015: Alabama def. Clemson 45-40
(You can follow Tony Barnhart on Twitter @MrCFB)
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