TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – One second.
Just one lousy second.
Just one second from a national championship and one second from perfection.
Alabama was the nation’s No. 1 team on the first day of the 2016 season and remained in that position until the final second of the final game. One second was how much time was left when Clemson’s Deshaun Watson secured his place in college football history with a 2-yard touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow. It gave the Tigers a 35-31 victory and their first national championship in 35 years.
That one second was enough to keep Alabama from its fourth national championship in six season. It was enough to keep coach Nick Saban from his sixth national title, which would have tied him with Bear Bryant for the all-time record.
All of that history, all of that joy and sorrow and memories that will last a lifetime — all of that was won and lost with one second left.
So what do you do, I asked Saban in his office last week, when you come that close to perfection but finish one second short?
Simple, said the man about to enter his 12th season in Tuscaloosa: You start over and work like hell to get into that position again.
First, you go recruiting. Alabama signed the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class for the seventh consecutive year. Check. Then you start to figure out which players need to go into the positions that will give you the best chance to win.
“I never know about our teams this time of year; every year you lose 25 to 30 percent of your team,” said Saban, who has 205 wins as a college coach. “So you not only have to figure out which players belong on the bus, you have to get them in the right seats on the bus. The most important thing is you have to build the team chemistry that you need.”
This is not automatic. And more often than not, it is built from the ground up by the players.
“The championship teams we’ve had here all believed in having ownership of the team and doing things the right way,” Saban said.
But when Saban evaluated the 2016 season, he had to admit that, for all of the intangible qualities that team had, it did not play as well in the playoffs as he would have liked or expected. The Crimson Tide offense had a bunch of negative plays in the 24-7 semifinal victory over Washington. The offense scored only 17 points and two of those scores came when running back Bo Scarbrough simply ran over people.
Then came the drama of Saban’s decision to let offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin go and replace him with offensive analyst Steve Sarkisian before the national championship game on Jan. 8.
While the decision by Saban sparked some second-guessing (which always happens when you lose), Alabama did score 31 points against Clemson with Sarkisian calling the plays. But that was not enough because of Watson’s brilliance. Alabama’s defense was on the field for 99 plays, and that was one play too many.
Looking back, Saban said he feels he could have done a better job guiding his team through some choppy waters at the end of the season.
“I didn’t think we played great in the championship game because some of our guys didn’t play up to our standard,” Saban said. “That’s my fault. (Those are) the kind of things you have to manage well at the end of the season. I didn’t do something at the end.”
But the page here in Tuscaloosa long ago has been turned. If there is one core value in Saban’s “process,” it is that you learn as much as you can from victory or defeat, then you move on.
Sarkisian took an opportunity to become the offensive coordinator with the Atlanta Falcons for his good friend Dan Quinn; he was replaced by Brian Daboll, a former offensive coordinator with three different NFL teams and most recently the tight ends coach for the New England Patriots.
There was speculation that Saban hired Daboll to step away from some of the spread concepts Alabama used under Kiffin and to once again be a heavy run-oriented attack. Not so, Saban said.
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