Wednesday, January 13, 2016

A National Championship Game to Remember

Many of the Bowl games we were excited to watch turned out to be duds this holiday season, with one team dominating the other as if two teams from different divisions were facing each other on the field. Tennessee crushed Northwestern (45-6), Ole Miss routed Oklahoma State (48-20), Ohio State cruised by Notre Dame (44-28), Stanford absolutely smothered Iowa (45-16), Michigan pummeled Florida (41-7) and the two semifinals were blowouts with Clemson cruising past Oklahoma 37-17 (after trailing 17-16 at halftime) and Alabama embarrassing Michigan State 38-0. Some of the lesser bowls had great comebacks, near misses and close games, but there was a sense that this Bowl season might end up a disappointment. While some stalwarts held out for Clemson, plenty of pundits and gamblers thought Alabama would continue the trend by obliterating Clemson.

Alabama ultimately won Monday night, but in one of the closer National Championship games in recent years. It was a back and forth affair won, ironically when we are talking about Saban’s Alabama, by special teams. In the fourth quarter of a tie game, Saban took the huge risk of kicking an onside kick. It was, of course, successful, and combined with a number of impressive kick returns and forgoing the missed field goal, allowed the Crimson Tide to overcome a Clemson team that exceeded expectations in every way but actually winning the game. Rather than recap a matchup that has already been combed over by the world of sports journalism in great detail, I thought I would explore some of the highlights of the Alabama win and the standout performances on both sides of the ball.

I’ll start with Nick Saban who now stands behind the only man who can truly challenge his claim to greatest ever, that iconic Bear known as much for his stylish fedora as the six national championships he won at Alabama. Saban is not my favorite coach in the sport, with a sense that reputation alone helped him get to the big dance in the BCS era and that he lacks the personality one likes to find in our heroes. Last year, Ohio State upset Alabama and fortified the sense that maybe some of Saban’s success was down to the premium put on any Alabama season. Those potential criticisms can no longer be levied with any seriousness. Not only did Saban win his fifth national title, with four of those coming at Alabama in the past seven years, but he did so with real verve and a number of impressive coaching decisions. The last of note was the aforementioned onside kick, but one could see the game plan working long before that. This was not the stellar performance we have become accustomed to from Alabama, as their vaulted defense allowed 40 points (and it could have easily been more). It did not come from the explosive running of Henry, who was largely held after exploding for a TD early in the game and wrapped it up with a physical run late, but was held to relatively meager numbers in the second half (even as his 158 total yards allowed him to become the all-time leader in that category at Alabama). Instead it came from a number of big plays including using a tight end named O. J. Howard, who had only 394 yards and zero touchdown during the rest of the season, as a primary long ball threat, that resulted in 5 catches for an incredible 208 yards and two touchdowns. Finally, was the ability to withstand five lead changes and three ties, by finding ways to beat a defense that has been almost as impressive as Alabama throughout the season. Again, it came on reverses, the long ball, special teams and key defensive stops, but all together showed a coach at the top of his game and, maybe now, at the top of the pantheon of “greatest ever.”

Beyond Saban, Alabama now have 11 national championships (though they officially claim 16) and have built two empires in the past 40 years, with no signs of the trend abating in the years to come. Saban might move on at some point, but as he looks at fellow college coaches that have made the journey to the NFL (Kelly anyone?), he might reconsider. College Football is a completely different animal, with recruiting and building short-term but meaningful relationships with players a coach can mentor toward greatness a mile away from the management of egos and constant injuries in a league that prides itself on parity. Dynasties are a rarity in the NFL, particularly in the past 20 years or so, and one would think there are few jobs better than sitting at the perch of the most storied program in college football lore. On the other side of the ball, Dabo Swinney further solidified his position as, arguably, the second best coach to ever walk the sidelines of Death Valley. In eight seasons with the Tigers, Swinney has accrued a record of 75-27 (.753), with a 4-3 record in bowl games, five straight 10-win seasons and was a few plays away from upsetting Saban and the heavily favored Crimson Tide. He will need to get over the hump and win a national title to match Danny Ford and maybe surpass the 30-year career of the other iconic Tiger coach Frank Howard. But he is closing in on both.

Clemson in fact appears to be a team that could challenge for the title again next year with the presumptive return of the sparkling talent that is quarterback Deshaun Watson along with much of the squad that came so close to capturing the title themselves. Watson threw for 405 yards and ran for another 73, becoming the first quarterback ever to throw for over 4,000 yards while rushing for over 1,000 in the same season. He is a unique talent that one could see going on to do incredible things in the pros. Lest us forget he did this against an Alabama defense that had just stuffed Michigan with a bagel. He threw pitch perfect pass after pitch perfect pass, not giving up at the end when all hope seemed lost and easily could have won if his receivers caught even one of the three touchdown throws that ended up as field goals because of being dropped or knocked out at the last second. The Clemson defense played tough through long stretches of the game, but were exposed to a series of big plays through the air, on the ground and on special teams (an area of concern coming in as the worst kickoff coverage team in the ACC this season) that ultimately cost them the game. Who can doubt they will again be in the conversation for a playoff spot next season?

One might also mention the last touchdown of the game, with 12 seconds left, that ultimately saw $10 million in bets switch hands in Las Vegas alone. It was a bookies dream – with the underdog losing but covering the spread. Over a million dollars was made by those Vegas bookies alone as a result of that ultimately meaningless last score and one assumes the total went into the tens of millions if we could count all the illegal betting beyond the legal sports booking sites. Those who, one would have thought cleverly, bet on the under were also subject to losses, as few could have predicted a game with 85 points scored in front of two great defenses.

Finally is College Football, who must consider itself the ultimate winners, getting a Championship Game to remember and further proof that the committee tasked with picking the participants in this year’s playoff did their job. There is no better advertisement for a sport than an excellent, hard fought and closely contested final game to end a season and one assumes the sport might have garnered more than a few new fans with this enticing affair. Along with the 85 points, the game had 1,023 yards in total offense, one quarterback who threw for over 400 yards and four TDs while the other accrued 335 and two (on only 16 completions and 25 throws), only one turnover, eight receivers who caught a pass for 20-yards or more, a walk on freshman wide receiver (Hunter Renfrow) who caught 7 passes for 88 yards and two scores, the Alabama tight end who almost doubled his total yards for the year and 196 yards and a TD in kick returns from standout Alabama specialist Kenyan Drake. It was truly a night to remember, with more impressive defensive play that the numbers would suggest and the sole turnover being a key interception of Watson. Now we can say goodnight to another season, debate the favorites to get in the playoffs next year, who will turn pro and hang around for another year, how the coaching merry-go-round will shake up and turn our attention back to the NFL and a series of kickers who will hope for a better fate than that poor fella from Minnesota whose name with go down in the infamy right alongside Saban’s, though for far less sanguine reasons.

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