ALABAMA TURNED WHAT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A DEFENSIVE SHOWDOWN INTO AN OFFENSIVE BEATDOWN, AND BY THE SECOND HALF THE ONLY COMPETITION REMAINING WAS BETWEEN THE SCHOOL'S OLD COACH AND ITS CURRENT ONE
Great things can happen in a place like Tuscaloosa, Ala., where past glory is served with every meal and there is an eternal belief, even during the most uncertain times, that each autumn will bring rebirth. It takes the right coach. It takes the right time.
So it was on Monday night, in a professional football stadium on a lonely tract of land hard by the endless highways of South Florida that Alabama, under coach Nick Saban, returned indelibly not just to the national championship, but also to a place high above the sport itself. The Crimson Tide punished top-ranked Notre Dame 42--14, turning one of college football's most anticipated title games into a punch line, and sending once-euphoric Fighting Irish fans who had sought completion of their own renaissance, walking, humbled, into the tropical darkness.
The championship was Alabama's third in four years, the first such run since Nebraska in 1994, '95 and '97 (the third of which was shared by Michigan). "There's a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED cover hanging in my room—because I'm on it—from 2010," said Alabama senior center Barrett Jones after the game, as "Sweet Home Alabama" filled the air. "It says, DYNASTY. CAN ANYONE STOP ALABAMA? I'll never forget looking at that thing and wondering if we really could be a dynasty. Three out of four. I'm no dynasty expert, but that seems like a dynasty to me."
Saban's run is even more impressive: Including the title he won with LSU in 2003, he has now coached teams to national championships in four of the last 10 seasons. Only Paul (Bear) Bryant, whose six titles at Alabama measure (and haunt) Saban's work, has won more. "This was the toughest one, absolutely," said Saban, as he walked through the bowels of Sun Life Stadium long after the game was over. "To repeat, it takes a special will, because you're always fighting against yourself. It's human nature to be satisfied with what you did last year. It takes a special group, with a special character, to overcome that. And this team did it."
The Tide overcame a home loss to Texas A&M on Nov. 10 that might have ruined their chances of repeating. They stopped Georgia five yards short of victory in the Southeastern Conference championship game on Dec. 1 in Atlanta. And still in the early days of January, before leaving for Florida, 'Bama struggled. "We had two practices right before we left Tuscaloosa that were just terrible," said senior linebacker Nico Johnson. Saban called a meeting on Jan. 3 in Florida and demanded better work. Players stayed in the hotel ballroom after Saban left and punctuated the coach's message. "After that," said Johnson, "practices got better every day."
The college football world had embraced Alabama--Notre Dame as an iconic matchup, pairing historic programs. Notre Dame had finished at 12--0, the only major bowl-eligible unbeaten team, a stunning return to power after more than two decades of mediocrity and worse. Yet all of this was undone in barely a quarter of football, as Alabama administered a physical and schematic beating not seen in a national championship game since USC's 55--19 trouncing of Oklahoma at the end of the 2004 season. "They're not just better than us," Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said afterward. "They're better than everybody."
After taking the opening kickoff, Alabama drove 82 yards to score in five plays, four of them rushes left, behind tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, guard Chance Warmack and Jones. After Notre Dame went three-and-out, Alabama drove 61 yards in 10 plays to take a 14--0 lead not even 10 minutes into the game, again pounding its left side with stretch running plays, primarily for tailback Eddie Lacy, who would finish with 140 yards on 20 carries. "Notre Dame is simple on defense," said Jones. "They're good because they [keep it] simple. But they're simple."
Right guard Anthony Steen said, "We knew from film study that if we shifted a certain way, Notre Dame was probably going to shift a certain way that would give us some blocking angles. And they did. Every time." The angles allowed Alabama to neutralize Louis Nix III, Notre Dame's 324-pound nosetackle, and render Heisman Trophy runner-up Manti Te'o, a senior linebacker, ineffective.
In the aftermath Tide players stood on risers at midfield, under a shower of crimson-and-white confetti, celebrating the SEC's seventh straight national title. After the championship trophy was awarded, they ran into the locker room, where Saban stood in the middle, his shirt soaked from the customary Gatorade dousing and said to them, "You dominated."