ATLANTA — The Nick Saban Decade began in Atlanta in August 2008 with a 34-10 victory over No. 9 Clemson so one-sided that Tigers coach Tommy Bowden came out and said his team had been “whipped about every way you get whipped” — a remarkable thing for a coach to say.
The Saban Decade ended in Atlanta, five national championships and 124 victories later, with a 26-23 overtime victory over Georgia that defied belief, logic and everything we have ever been taught about what it takes to win in college football.
It takes experience. Down 13-0 at the half, Alabama fought back to win thanks to the play of six freshmen on offense, including quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
It takes ball control. Georgia held the ball for nearly 34 minutes and converted one long third down after another.
It takes mistake-free football. The Crimson Tide took three points off the board in the first quarter because of a false start penalty. Andy Pappanastos missed that field goal — and another one that would have won the game at the end of regulation, one he badly hooked with a national championship at stake.
Tagovailoa threw an interception on a running play.
Trailing Georgia 23-20 in overtime, he took a 16-yard sack on first down.
On the next play, Tagovailoa inserted himself in the Tide history books.
“How did we win?” Alabama special-teams coordinator Joe Pannunzio asked after the game.
Who changes quarterbacks at halftime of the final game of the season? And wins? This wasn’t the buy-a-victory game against Mercer the week before the Iron Bowl, when you’re trying to rest your starters. This was the game with everything on the line, and Alabama was down two scores.
“The younger guys worked their tail off all year,” said Tide strength coach Scott Cochran. “Frustrated, disappointed. And they put it in these three, four weeks that we had to get ready for that first playoff game, and they just kept fighting. They got their shot and dominated.”
A win that defied belief ended a decade that defied history. How do you measure how dominant Alabama has been over the past 10 years? There are the numbers. The Tide played for six national championships, winning five. Only six other schools have won five national titles in the poll era.
Alabama won 125 games in the past 10 years, 13 more than second-place Ohio State. If you average 12.5 wins a season, that’s pretty dominant.
The Saban Decade has been marked by flawless, relentless performances and all the drama of a thresher going through a wheat field. You pretty much know the outcome. Yet Alabama didn’t lead Georgia on Monday night until DeVonta Smith, another freshman, caught that 41-yard strike from Tagovailoa.
You can make the case that any coach who loses the Kick-Six, who loses a national championship game with 1 second to play, deserves to win a game like this. But even Saban sounded a bit mystified after the game.
“It is hard,” Saban said. “We knew it would be a hard game. … If you can’t overcome hard, you’re never going to have any great victories in your life.”
Hard is overcoming the loss of nearly 50 starters to injury. Hard is seeing your starting quarterback stymied and asking a freshman to come in and take over. Hard is seeing left offensive tackle Jonah Williams go out with an injury in the third quarter and replacing him with a freshman, Alex Leatherwood.
The victory gave Saban his sixth national title — don’t forget he won one at LSU in 2003 — and that tied him with Alabama legend Paul “Bear” Bryant for most national championships in the poll era (since 1936).
The victory also raised Saban’s record against his former assistants to 12-0. By comparison, Bryant went 45-6 against his former aides.
How good did you have to be to get one over on the Bear? Four of those five coaches who beat Bryant are in the College Football Hall of Fame: Paul Dietzel, Gene Stallings, Charlie McClendon (the only one to beat Bryant twice) and Pat Dye.
How good do you have to be to beat Nick Saban?
Joe Pendry retired from the Alabama staff seven years ago, but he has remained on the payroll as the éminence grise for the Tide’s offense. Pendry, 70, grew up in West Virginia and saw Saban, four years his junior, play high school ball. Asked if there is a thread running through the success of this Saban Decade, he said, “Yeah. Nick Saban.”
Pendry said it without a hint of sarcasm or condescension.
“Nick knows what he wants,” Pendry said. “He knows how to do it. He communicates it and gets people, players and coaches to carry that out. That’s the thread that runs through it. And he works tirelessly at it, both coaching and recruiting. That is the thread.”
It’s the tireless part that amazes Pendry.
“I don’t know how he does it, to be honest with you,” Pendry said. “I mean, when I got out, the recruiting was the reason. He can keep going and going.”
Six freshmen made the difference for Alabama against Georgia. Saban thrust them onto the field not only at a critical juncture of the championship game, but when the Tide trailed by two scores.
Freshman Najee Harris, who didn’t carry the ball in the first half, led the Tide with 64 yards on six carries. Leatherwood came into the game and didn’t allow a sack. Wide receiver Henry Ruggs III caught passes on three consecutive snaps, the last one a 6-yarder for Alabama’s first touchdown. Wide receiver Jerry Jeudy made a 20-yard catch that set up Alabama’s game-tying touchdown in the fourth quarter.
“So this was, I think, one of our best recruiting classes, this freshman class from last year, especially with offensive talent,” Saban said.
So much conspires against the continued success of a program. Saban has spoken often of the plague of complacency. But there’s also the difficulty of maintaining success as your assistant coaches take advantage of the reflected spotlight and move on to better things: Coordinators become head coaches — one in each of the past three seasons — and assistants become coordinators.
And still, Alabama keeps winning.
“There’s almost somebody from Alabama on every single staff in our conference,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, one of the aforementioned former Tide coordinators, said Saturday. Smart rattled off Georgia, Auburn, South Carolina, Tennessee, Missouri and Texas A&M off the top of his head.
“I think that gap closes,” Smart said, “because people are always trying to catch up with them.”
Smart came the closest. He lost a game that will haunt him long after he retires. But Smart joins a long line of coaches that began with Tommy Bowden.
The Saban Decade ended with a victory for the ages. How did Alabama win?
“Hell if I know,” Pendry said.