ATLANTA — Nick Saban kept repeating the jersey numbers: 84 and 1. Eighty-four and one.
He was referring to Florida’s most explosive receiving threats, the two players who gave his Alabama team the most trouble during its 52–46 SEC championship game win here Saturday night: tight end Kyle Pitts (84) and versatile wideout Kadarius Toney (1). They are “serious mismatches”—Saban’s words—who combined for 15 catches, 282 yards and two touchdowns against his secondary.
In using Pitts and Toney as they did, the Gators created the closest thing to a blueprint on beating the Crimson Tide. And still, they lost.
So, can it be done?
Can anyone topple Alabama?
“No,” says one SEC assistant. “Come on now.”
A half-dozen FBS coaches spoke anonymously to Sports Illustrated on Sunday about the College Football Playoff. The discussion quickly evolved into the dominance of the Tide, which completed one of the best regular seasons in college football history, winning 11 consecutive SEC games by an average of about four touchdowns. Just one of the games—the latest one—was a one-possession outcome.
The group of six coaches universally agree on two things: (1) the Tide should win it all and (2) of the teams in the playoff, only Clemson is capable of knocking off Saban’s team.
Even a Big Ten coach believes that No. 3 Ohio State doesn’t have the offensive firepower to keep up with Alabama. He believes only Clemson can exploit the weaknesses of Bama’s defense like Florida did.
A Group of Five head coach agreed, but for a different reason.
“I don’t know enough about Ohio State,” he says, “because you’ve only seen them six times.”
“I’ve watched Ohio State on film and they don’t seem like they’re playing at a high level offensively,” adds the Big Ten coach. “I don’t see them causing the matchup issues.”
So who can? Coaches believe two players are skilled enough to cause Alabama serious matchup problems like Florida’s Pitts and Toney, and they both play for the same team: Clemson. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne can each exploit a defense through the air—Lawrence passing and Etienne catching—and on the ground.
“I think Etienne and Trevor Lawrence running is a matchup issue,” says the Big Ten coach.
Says the Group of Five head coach: “Trevor Lawrence gives anyone a shot.”
Lawrence possesses ingredients that have troubled Alabama’s defense in the past—a dual-threat, long-ball passer who isn’t afraid to launch deep balls and sprint for long gains. Etienne and Lawrence give Clemson something Florida lacked: a running game. The Gators ran for 54 yards on 26 carries.
Alabama’s offensive evolution has come at a price, says one coach: Its defense has regressed. He suggested that may be rooted in the unit practicing daily against an offense that leans more on a spread, pass-heavy attack. “You wonder if that’s affecting them,” he says.
According to two coaches, the Tide’s defense is lacking in two areas that used to always be a strength. Their safeties aren’t as strong as normal, and they lack an elite pass rusher.
Saturday’s result—Bama allowed 462 yards and 46 points—had one Big Ten coach questioning the Tide’s defensive improvements from earlier this season to the last month.
“After making strides, you have to ask the question: ‘Is the defense fixed?’ ” he says.
Another SEC assistant defends the Tide’s defense. It’s the nature of this era of football.
“The days of giving up 21 points are over, so people will score points on them,” he says. And as they proved Saturday, the Tide can now score with them.
But no team in the playoff field has exactly what Florida has from a matchup perspective—certainly not Notre Dame, which will meet Alabama in a CFP semifinal in Arlington on Jan. 1. From there, the Tide would get the Ohio State–Clemson winner in the championship game in Miami.
Soon, we’ll know whether any team can reconstruct Florida’s blueprint. But Nos. 84 and 1 aren’t walking through their door.
“If they stay healthy, the only chance people have to beat them is catching them on the perfect storm day where things just don’t go well,” one FBS head coach said. “Only thing in Alabama’s way is Alabama.”