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Nick Saban, Alabama fall short in memorable national championship game

TAMPA – Since he arrived at Alabama 10 years ago, Nick Saban has not had a whole lot of experience at losing.

That doesn’t make it less painful.

The man who has won 119 games since 2007 clearly was disappointed after his team fell to Clemson 35-31 in Monday night’s College Football Playoff national championship game. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson threw a touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow with one second left to deny No. 1 Alabama (14-1) its fifth national championship in the past eight seasons.

“I have to say that I’m extremely proud of our team for what they were able to accomplish this entire season,” Saban said after the game. “I don’t think one game defines who you are as a person, as a competitor or as a team. It was a hard-fought game out there. (It’s) very disappointing to lose a game like that.”

RELATED: Deshaun Watson, Clemson slay the giant to win national title

Not only was Alabama denied a chance to become the first college football team in the modern era to finish 15-0, Saban was denied his sixth national championship. That would have tied him with Alabama legend Bear Bryant for the most national championships ever by a coach. Saban won a championship at LSU in 2003 and at Alabama in 2009, ’11, ’12, and ’15.

But after the game Saban wanted to emphasize the accomplishments of his senior class, which set an NCAA record with 51 wins; the group also won three SEC championships and made three appearances in the CFP – twice as the No. 1 seed.

“Their leadership has been commendable all season long, and these guys have (had) a tremendous amount of success at the University of Alabama,” Saban said. “To win three straight SEC championships, to be in the playoffs three straight years, to win a national championship last year … these guys have done a fantastic job of representing the university.”

All season, Alabama had relied on a defense that led the nation in three of four major categories. Coaches around the SEC told me personally that this was Saban’s best defense in his decade at Alabama. And when Alabama held a 24-14 lead early in the fourth quarter, it looked as if the Crimson Tide was in perfect shape to close out the game.

But Alabama could not overcome the loss of running back Bo Scarbrough, who left the game late in the third quarter and did not return, and another uneven performance by freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts, who was only 13-of-31 for 131 yards.

Losing Scarbrough, who ran for two touchdowns to stake Alabama to an early 14-0 lead, was critical. He was the major factor in Alabama’s 24-7 win over Washington in the semifinals, when he ran for 180 yards and put the game away with a 68-yard touchdown run.

“He’s certainly been the bell cow for us and he has certainly, because of his size and durability, he makes it difficult when the defense gets worn down a bit,” Saban said. “Not to have him was probably little bit for a disadvantage for us.”

Without Scarbrough, Alabama could not control the ball and keep Clemson’s offense off the field. Alabama’s defense was on the field for 99 plays. So it’s fair to say when Clemson got the ball with 2:07 left and trailing 31-28, Watson was working against a defense that was gassed.

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