In Nick Saban’s words, the 2015 Alabama football team was all but “dead and buried” by media and the rest of the college football world. At least that’s what he was portraying to his team after an early-season loss that essentially made every subsequent Saturday an elimination game regarding its national title hopes.
Only the Crimson Tide responded.
With the defense and running game leading the way Alabama did what the two previous teams could not, run the table, successfully defending its Southeastern Conference title and then surviving the College Football Playoff for the program’s 16 national championship.
“This is my — I hate to say it — favorite team because I love’em all,” Saban said. “These guys have come so far and have done so much. Their will, their spirit to compete and do the kind of kind of things they needed to do to be the kind of team they could be, I’m happy for them.
“This is all about winning a game for them. It’s great for our fans. It’s great for the state of Alabama, but I wanted to win this game for these guys.”
With the 45-40 victory against Clemson at the site of the Fiesta Bowl (giving Alabama under Saban a grand slam at what used to be the four Bowl Championship Series locations) the debate could really begin on if Saban was the greatest coach in college football history, and if Alabama’s ongoing dynasty was the best the game had ever seen.
The crown was Saban’s fifth, four with the Crimson Tide, which became the first program during the modern era to win four titles over a seven-year span.
Additionally, it was Saban’s sixth victory against a team ranked No. 1, while no one else in college football history had more than four (Lou Holtz, Jimmy Johnson, and Jack Mollenkopf. Paul W. “Bear” Bryant was among those with three), and Alabama extended its streak of being No. 1 at some point in a season to an incredible eight straight years.
Regardless, after both semifinals were blowouts, with Alabama defeating Michigan State 38-0 in the Cotton Bowl, the championship more than made up for it and would be remembered as one of the best title games ever played. The two teams combined for 1,023 yards and it still went down to the end.
Junior running back Derrick Henry rushed for 158 yards on 36 carries and scored three touchdowns while becoming Alabama’s all-time leading rusher.
Despite being sacked five times senior quarterback Jake Coker had a career high 335 yards on 16 of 25 attempts, and no turnovers.
Kenyan Drake had a key 95-yard kick return for a touchdown.
Overshadowing all of them was the game’s offensive MVP, junior tight end O.J. Howard, who had a historic performance with five receptions for 208 yards and touchdowns of 51 and 53 yards.
“O.J., quite honestly, should have been more involved all year long,” Saban said. “Sometimes he was open and we didn’t get him the ball, but I think the last two games have been breakout games for him in terms of what he’s capable of and what he can do.
“I would say that it’s bad coaching on my part that he didn’t have the opportunity to do that all year long.”
Alabama also pulled off a jaw-dropping onside kick when the game was tied 24-24 with just under 11 minutes remaining, when Adam Griffith perfectly bounced the football into open space and redshirt freshman Marlon Humphrey made a leaping catch to the dismay of Clemson coach Dabo Swinney — a walk-on receiver on Alabama’s 1992 national championship team.
Alabama’s run was even more impressive when you consider the brutal schedule that began with a neutral-site game against Wisconsin, and included the top three teams from the SEC East: Florida, Tennessee and Georgia.
Overall, Alabama played nine opponents that were ranked at the time, the most of any national champion. Every team in the division not only finished with a winning record, but at some point of the season was ranked—a first in college football. Combined, the SEC West went 31-4 against non-conference opponents, and 13-2 against the SEC East.
“To face 12 straight elimination games after the Ole Miss [loss],” Saban said. “The resiliency, the competitive character that this team showed at being able to do that, and even coming back from behind in the national championship game really shows the spirit that made this team something special.”
This is the sixth story in a series that will appear before New Year's Day, counting down the top 10 Alabama football moments of the 2010-19 decade.
Some of the information in this story originally appeared in "17 in 17: Alabama’s 2017 National Championship Caps College Football’s Greatest Dynasty