Last week’s terrific Rose Bowl between Georgia and Oklahoma prompted me to write an article ranking the greatest college football games of the 2010’s.
That list — and any list ranking the greatest games in college football history, for that matter — now needs to be updated after Alabama’s thrilling overtime victory over Georgia last night. So many surprising twists, so many exciting moments, and, without a doubt, an ending for the ages.
This game would’ve lacked drama, though, if not for one of the gutsiest in-game decisions ever by a coach whose resume is essentially unrivaled. There seemed to be nearly unanimous agreement, at least among the people I was communicating with and the Twitter feeds I was following, that Nick Saban was borderline crazy to pull Jalen Harts (25-2 record as a starter) after one horrible half of football for the largely unknown Tua Tagovailoa, an inexperienced freshman.
But Saban’s ability to prevent emotions from impacting his decision-making — a skill only the Belichick’s and the Poppovich’s seem to consistently display — is what ultimately allowed Alabama to rally after a lifeless first half and claim a twelfth national championship. And for Saban, his reward for making such a fearless choice is a sixth title of his own, tying him with another Alabama legend, Bear Bryant, for most all-time.
However, I think this latest title now puts Saban in a class all to himself at the college level, as his Crimson Tide became the first program in college football history to win five national titles in only a nine-year stretch. It pains me to say it as a New England Patriots fan, but these accomplishments also provide Saban with a compelling case to be considered the most successful football coach ever, college or NFL.
With that said, Saban was not the hero for Alabama in yesterday’s National Championship. That honor clearly belongs to Tua Tagovailoa, the game’s offensive MVP. I believe in the old adage, “coaches coach and players play,” and boy did Tagovailoa make some plays. Alabama’s rally officially started early in the third quarter after Tagovailoa’s third-and-7 scramble in which he bulldozed over a couple Georgia defenders before reversing field to pick up the first down. Only four plays later, the Crimson Tide finally found their way into the end zone. And I know what you were thinking at that moment: Damn…this guy is good!
Of course, everyone is going to remember Tagovailoa for his incredible walk-off touchdown throw to DeVonta Smith. But let’s not forget the two important drives he led late in the fourth quarter. The first one culminated in that ridiculous anticipatory touchdown pass to Calvin Ridley (on fourth down, no less) to tie the game at 20. Talk about throwing a receiver open! Let’s also remember how the true freshman, starting in his own territory once again, piloted the Tide on their next possession all the way to the Georgia 24-yard-line before another clutch conversion (a 4-yard run from Tagovailoa on 3rd and 3) put Alabama securely into field goal range with just under a minute remaining.
And it was at this moment where I actually think Saban made a horrible decision. Tagovailoa and company were at the Georgia twenty-yard-line and equipped with two timeouts. Why didn’t Saban try to get the ball closer, or perhaps even score a touchdown? Didn’t he see how badly his kicker, the poor Andy Pappanastos, shanked his first field goal attempt from a similar distance? In short, I actually think Saban played a significant role in jeopardizing his team’s chances to win by taking the ball out of Tagovailoa’s hands with a minute to go and wrongly placing too much confidence in his shaky kicker.
All’s well that ends well, though, and I’d rather emphasize how Tagovailoa was the true hero of this year’s National Championship by praising him for his remarkable performance instead of knocking Saban for one questionable decision.
Plus, as if it hasn’t already been a terrific last twelve hours for the Crimson Tide faithful, there’s little doubt that Tagovailoa, a 5-star recruit who was hailed as the next Marcus Mariota before graduating high school in his native Hawaii, will have Alabama on the same stage next season. So while it’s fun to argue now whether Nick Saban has secured his standing as perhaps the greatest coach in college football history after tying Bear Bryant, it’s hard to imagine a world in which Alabama isn’t claiming more championship trophies in the near future.
In other words, Saban’s success, if not already, will ultimately be unparalleled.