SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Nick Saban has already made history in his career, but was on the verge of more. One more national championship victory to add to his legacy and he’d have the most titles of any coach ever. After last year, he had won six, which tied Alabama legend Paul “Bear” Bryant. This year, he was going to win No. 7.
There was no reason not to portend. Saban had one of the best quarterbacks in the country in Heisman Trophy runner-up Tua Tagovailoa, who entered Monday night’s game with a 41-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio. The sophomore quarterback was in charge of the nation’s No. 2 scoring offense (47.7 points per game) that was also ranked in the top five in explosive plays of 40 yards or more (30). Alabama crushed all 12 regular season opponents by 20 points or more. The Crimson Tide were recognized as one of the most dominant and most unforgiving teams this season.
Then it ran into the other one. Monday night, Clemson mauled Alabama 44–16 and now Dabo Swinney holds a 2–1 record over Saban in national championship games over the past four years.
This was the worst loss during the Saban era in Tuscaloosa, which began in 2007. The program has experienced defeat: There was the “Kick Six” in the 2013 Iron Bowl, an inexplicable seven-point loss to Louisiana Monroe in his first season, getting outplayed by Utah in the 2008 Sugar Bowl to name a few. But a Saban-led Alabama has never lost by more than 14 points. Monday night was also the largest deficit the program has experienced since a Mike DuBose-coached team fell to Nebraska in the 1998 Music City Bowl, 38–7. And it’s Saban’s personal worst loss since 2001, when his LSU team was crushed by Florida, 44–15.
“I just have a feeling that I didn’t do a very good job for our team, giving them the best opportunity to be successful,” Saban said. “I always feel that way, even sometimes when we win, I think there’s things we could do better or that I could have done better.”
Alabama made too many mistakes: two interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), a missed extra point, an ill-timed failed fake field goal, not converting on numerous opportunities in the red zone, not getting off the field on third down. The only way Alabama players could explain what happened was that they made too many mental errors.
“Everything we got, we gave it to them,” said Alabama senior defensive lineman Isaiah Buggs. “Mental errors. It’s like Coach Saban says, ‘It don’t get you ‘til it get you’ and it got us tonight. We didn’t execute as a defense.”
You knew something was off when the normally rambunctious Alabama strength coach Scott Cochran wasn’t bouncing up and down the sideline or holding up four fingers to start the fourth quarter. Known for this Fourth Quarter Program, Cochran usually holds up four fingers up with both hands as soon as the third quarter ends to signify that it’s time to finish off the opponent. During home games at Bryant Denny Stadium, a video of him pumping up fans blares on the jumbotron. Alabama has always been known as a team that gets stronger as the game goes on. That was not the case this time.
Clemson led 44–16 when the fourth quarter began. When the first series ended with Tagovailoa not being able to convert from inside the 10 on four different tries, Alabama surrendered. With 11:12 remaining and down by 28, Jalen Hurts went in for one final drive before the Tigers ran out the last 10 minutes.
Clemson scored the most points (44), piled up the most yards (482) and averaged the most yards per play (7.7) than any other Alabama opponent this season. The Tide were ranked No. 2 in the country before Monday on third down, converting 53% of the time. Against Clemson, they went 4 of 13 and failed to score enough inside the red zone. Beyond Tagovailoa's two interceptions, he made other poor decisions, including late in the second quarter when he didn’t see cornerback Trayvon Mullen coming on a corner blitz and was sacked for an 11-yard loss and fumbled. He wasn’t the only one with subpar judgment though. Down 31–16 at halftime, Saban decided to fake a field goal on his team’s first drive of the third quarter after they couldn’t convert third-and-6 from the Clemson 22. Mac Jones, Alabama’s third-string quarterback and holder, was stuffed for a 2-yard loss by Nyles Pinckney.
“I think it was a poor decision on my part not to kick the field goal,” Saban said. “We thought we had a really, really good fake and somebody didn’t block the guy they were supposed to block, so it didn’t work. It was a bad call.”
Alabama’s defense couldn’t get off the field either. Freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence found Tee Higgins for a 62-yard bomb on third-and-14 on Clemson’s second possession of the game and running back Travis Etienne ran for a 17-yard touchdown on the next play to give the Tigers an early 14–7 lead. Clemson’s No. 2 defense recorded 70 tackles, two interceptions for 90 yards (including the touchdown) and two sacks. Alabama didn’t have a sack or a quarterback hit, nor did it force a single turnover.
“I think the responsibility for us not playing well really starts with me,” Saban said.
Lawrence, just 19 years old, completed 20 of 32 passes for 347 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Alabama couldn’t keep up with his explosive plays—and he had many, including the 74-yard strike to receiver Justyn Ross for a touchdown early in the third quarter that pushed his team’s lead to 37–16. Ross, also a freshman, had a career high 153 yards receiving on six catches with the one score.
“I think we got some pressure on him pretty good,” Buggs said of Lawrence. “He just completed the throws. And that’s about us not executing on defense. We weren’t in the right spots.”
Alabama had been down in games before. In last year’s national title game against Georgia, Bama trailed 13–0 at the half. This time, it was 31–16, the most points it had given up in a first half this season. But the Tide didn’t have any comeback magic. Alabama was too sloppy, too undisciplined and made too many mistakes. All of which were unfamiliar territory for a group of seniors that had only lost three games in four years before this one.
“You have to evaluate yourself as a man,” said senior tight end Hale Hentges, his eyes bloodshot. “We didn’t want the score to be that lopsided. They’re a really great team, but I don’t think they’re 28 points better than us. I think we gave them a lot of that and I think we just didn’t finish.
“We’re all sick to our stomachs.”
Saban wants his players to know that one game doesn’t define who they are and that they’ll learn from this experience. That may be true, but teams hope those teaching moments come before a national championship. Saban took the rare position after Monday’s loss to say that he could have coached better. Never before in his Alabama career has his team been dominated in such embarrassing fashion—former victims like Notre Dame and Texas have no sympathy. He may want his players to think about winning 14 games, the SEC and the Orange Bowl, but most likely, this is what they’ll end up remember the most when they think back on this season.
It's what he should remember most, too.