It might have been the best offensive performance in history. It might have been the best offensive play-calling effort in history. It might have been the best offensive team in history. But enough about LSU last season. The Tigers had their time. Alabama on Monday night continued its era.
In yet another College Football Playoff evisceration, No. 1 Alabama won the only way it knows how these days: piling it on — points, yards, embarrassment. In the end, the Crimson Tide outscored any concern there might be about stopping the opposition to win the 2021 CFP National Championship.
The great Nick Saban provided what for him was a revelation halfway through the season: “Good defense doesn’t beat good offense anymore.”
His team proved it with a historic result Monday night, 52-24 over No. 3 Ohio State in the seventh title game under the CFP banner. As confetti drifted down in a quarter-filled Hard Rock Stadium, the qualifiers themselves drifted away. This might just be the best Alabama team ever considering, well, everything.
“It’s one thing to have some ideas [to beat Alabama],” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “It’s another to execute them.”
Heaven help the defensive coordinator. All of them. Any of them. Everywhere.
The top five highest-scoring seasons in the sport have all come since 2012. In that time, Saban has jumped on board winning three national championships at Alabama while changing his philosophy to join that offensive revolution.
On Monday, Saban won his record seventh national title overall and sixth at Bama since 2009, surpassing the great Bear Bryant for most all-time. For this era’s greatest coach, 69 seems like the new 21. There is no end in sight. If there is a summit to scale after laying 621 yards and the most postseason points ever scored on Ohio State, it’s hard to see it. A dynasty continues.
“I think ball has changed. It’s a little more wide open; it’s a little more spread,” Saban said. “This team has changed, and we’ve adapted with it. Our offense was really the key to the success of this team. We’re an OK defensive team; we’re not a great defensive team. But the offense was dynamic, and that’s what made the difference.”
Just compare Saban’s two undefeated teams at Alabama, 11 years apart. His first championship team in 2009 featured Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram at running back and a stout defense. This one featured DeVonta Smith becoming the first wide receiver to win the Heisman in nearly 30 years and a defense that was the third-worst statistically ever to win a national championship, giving up 352.2 yards per game.
That’s how times have changed.
“To me, this team accomplished more almost than any team,” Saban said. “No disrespect to any other teams we had. This team won 11 SEC games. No other team has done that. Then they beat two great teams in the playoff with no break in between. Played 13 games, went undefeated, I think there’s quite a bit to write about when it comes to the legacy of this team.”
That’s not to say the defense was bad. Holding Ohio State to 24 points was an accomplishment for a unit that kept opponents to 17 or less in six of its last seven games. Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields went from six touchdowns against Clemson to one against Alabama. Defensive end Christian Barmore made himself some NFL money — and a home in the Buckeyes backfield — with a sack and two tackles for loss in becoming the defensive player of the game.
But in a season of painful, excruciating COVID-19 stops and starts, Alabama’s offense just kept going. Ohio State happened to be in the way Monday
Alabama has now won three of the seven CFP National Championships, more than anyone in the playoff era.
The game continues to change at a dizzying rate. LSU was that best-ever unit as recently as last season when Ed Orgeron, Joe Burrow and Joe Brady blew out Clemson. LSU won 15 games last year, outscoring everyone with a modern-record 726 points.
Alabama won 13 in this pandemic-shortened season setting a school scoring record for the third consecutive year.
There have been others that were offensive giants — Nebraska’s 1990s option, Oklahoma’s 1970s wishbone, those great Miami teams. But none of them had the across-the-board excellence that Alabama has displayed lately. When it was over, the nation’s best offensive line (Joe Moore Award) had blocked for the nation’s best running back (Najee Harris, Doak Walker Award) and sprung Heisman winner (Smith) in a performance for the ages. Arguably the nation’s best quarterback (Mac Jones, Davey O’Brien Award) set records of his own.
This as, in each of the last two national title games, a wonder boy play-caller had the game of his life on his way out the door. Brady is now with the Carolina Panthers and possibly set to take an NFL head coaching job this offseason. Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian — the nation’s best assistant coach in 2020 — oversaw a unit that scored at least 35 points in 25 of the last 26 games. It was his walk-off before taking over at Texas full-time on Tuesday.
Where do you want to start with this masterpiece painted in T-Town? Jones set a CFP title game record with 464 yards passing, matched Deshaun Watson’s record with 36 completions and matched Burrow’s CFP record with five touchdown passes. Three of those scores went to Smith, who departed shortly after halftime with an injured finger and did not return. The first half was enough for Smith, who set CFP records for catches (12) and touchdowns (three). His 215 yards receiving were just 6 yards short of Ja’Marr Chase’s record for most in a CFP national title game set last year.
None of it would have happened for Smith, for Saban, for Alabama or for the SEC if Bryant hadn’t set the foundation. That made it possible for a slight receiver from Amite, Louisiana — less than hour from Tiger Stadium — to come to Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Smith became perhaps the best in a line of Tide receivers under Saban that goes back to Julio Jones.
“Coach Bryant was in a class of his own,” Saban said. “If it wasn’t for Coach Bryant, we would never be able to do what we did. He made Alabama a place where a lot of players wanted to come.”
The Triplets – Jones, Smith and Harris – accounted for all but 69 of Alabama’s 621 yards against Ohio State.
“It’s hard for this offensive team to just say, ‘Us three,'” Harris said. “There were so many people whole played a role in this season. It’s hard to just say three people.”
Saban’s sixth championship at Alabama — all of them since 2009 — was over at halftime.
The Buckeyes, which upset No. 2 Clemson in the Sugar Bowl semifinal, were shorthanded from the start. They were without their kicker as well as well two starting defensive linemen and a backup, presumably with COVID-19 issues. One snap into the game, RB Trey Sermon landed awkwardly on his left shoulder and was taken to a hospital for X-rays. His night and probably his college career were over. That removed a key element for Day, who got a surprising 636 rushing yards from the Oklahoma transfer in the last three games.
By halftime, Smith had run past stunned Ohio State defenders for scoring catches of 5, 5 and 42 yards. Not that the Buckeyes weren’t warned. Smith led the country catches, yards and touchdowns this season.
“I don’t know if I’ve seen one better than that,” Day said. “He just seemed to create a lot of separation. He plays stronger than he looks.”
How close were these teams? Since AP started ranking 25 teams in 1989, these programs were tied with the most wins over ranked teams, 99. They are second and third in all-time wins, 931-928 Ohio State. The two combined to be shut out in only three of 76 quarters this season. They are both 90-10 over the last 100 games.
In the end, Alabama and Ohio State were not close at all.
The only comparison left was not just between the Tide and Buckeyes but Alabama and its long history. We may be witnessing the best roll the Tide have ever or will ever be on.
The frightening part? It’s not over yet.
“You’re always looking forward,” Saban said.
Listen to our instant analysis from Alabama’s national championship win, and subscribe to the Cover 3 College Football podcast for top-notch insight and analysis beyond the gridiron.