Put simply: Alabama coach Nick Saban does not go on national television late Saturday night to lobby for a spot in the College Football Playoff if he thinks it’s an easy decision for the selection committee to make.
Normally, you can’t catch him saying a negative word about anyone else’s program, but there he was throwing shade at Ohio State when he told ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt on SportsCenter that they wouldn’t be talking if his team had lost a game by 30 points (see: the Buckeyes' 55-24 loss to Iowa).
It’s not something Saban should be a ashamed of, mind you. He did what he had to in order to give his team the best shot at contending for a national championship. His argument was succinct and, ultimately, effective: “Look at the whole body of work.”
Without having to strain to read between the lines, that roughly translated to: Look at what Alabama did in September and October, but please divert your eyes from what happened in November, when the Tide needed the final two minutes to beat Mississippi State and lost by 12 at Auburn.
Also, and maybe more importantly, he was asking the committee to trust that, given the month of December to rest and prepare, Alabama would look like Alabama again.
If not, Clemson will beat the brakes off the Crimson Tide, plain and simple.
First things first, Alabama needs to get healthy -- a matter that was further complicated when head trainer Jeff Allen was run over during the Iron Bowl and fractured his wrist and ribs. But Allen is tough and he’ll push through.
In the Auburn game alone, there were at least four key players not operating at 100 percent: offensive guard Ross Pierschbacher (ankle), inside linebacker Mack Wilson (foot) and outside linebackers Christian Miller (bicep) and Terrell Lewis (elbow).
Wilson came back a week earlier than the original four-to-six-week timeline. Meanwhile, Miller and Lewis, who were originally ruled out for the season after their injuries in Week 1, returned to practice for the first time only three days before the Iron Bowl. And that’s to say nothing of star defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, who didn’t appear to have his normal acceleration and range of motion after suffering a badly pulled hamstring against LSU.
Not that you should weep for Alabama, but remember that there was a true freshman (Dylan Moses) starting at middle linebacker where a month earlier he was the understudy to senior Shaun Dion Hamilton, the quarterback of the defense, who was lost for the season with a knee injury.
You want to know why the defense looked a little different against Auburn? That’s a good example. Same for the close win over Mississippi State, when Wilson, Miller and Lewis didn’t play. Pierschbacher was knocked out early with a high ankle sprain, Fitzpatrick was limited by his hamstring, and Moses was getting his first meaningful action.
But obviously there’s more to it than that. Fundamentally speaking, tackling must improve. Schematically, there are issues to address on both sides of the ball.
Defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt is now on his way out the door to become the next head coach at Tennessee, throwing a wrench into preparation. It’s the third straight season that an Alabama coordinator is in this position heading into the playoff. Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin was in this position last year, and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart was in it the year before.
The offense as a whole needs further examination after what happened against Auburn in the Iron Bowl.
Quarterback Jalen Hurts had his worst quarterback rating all season, with the exception of a 59-0 blowout of Vanderbilt in which he didn’t need to lift a finger to win. Hurts held the ball too long at Auburn and turned the ball over for just the second time all year.
It didn’t help that his receivers dropped passes and the protection didn’t hold up, either.
Forgetting that third down was an absolute mess, what was perhaps most perplexing was the overall direction of the offense. Alabama, which has long been built on running the football, wasn’t committed to it despite a 79-yard touchdown drive to start the second half in which running backs Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough were featured on every play.
From then on, Harris, who leads the Crimson Tide with 1,040 yards and averages 8.2 yards per carry, had just two rushes for a total of 8 yards. Scarbrough, meanwhile, got two carries for a total of 5 yards.
While sophomore Josh Jacobs provided a spark at running back, going away from two proven, veteran backs late in the game made little sense.
For Alabama to give Clemson a run for its money in the Allstate Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll can’t settle for six carries and 51 yards from Harris. It’s clear now that Hurts needs a strong running game.
The good news for Alabama is that it got a mulligan and an opportunity to figure out what went wrong and make adjustments.
Whether Saban’s lobbying made any difference or not, the selection committee gave him a second chance.
“I think there’s a lesson to be learned here,” Saban said, “and I shared this with the team [Sunday] in our team meeting -- that because we didn’t finish the season the way we wanted to finish the season and didn’t play the way we’d like to play or to the standard that we’d like to play to, we put our fate in someone else’s hands. And you like to control the things that you can control. You can always control your behavior; you can always control your performance. But we didn’t do that, and we put our fate in somebody else’s hands.”
There was a “white-knuckle” time waiting to hear their future, Saban said, but now they’re in control of what happens next against No. 1 Clemson.