Tide Roll (Plus: Trevor Lawrence No Longer Overrated?)

As I’m beginning to write this, the score of the National Championship game is 52-24. I think Ohio State just scored a garbage time TD but they’re reviewing it. It doesn’t really matter though. This thing is done.

I know Ohio State had a lot of injuries and Covid absences, but the real story of the game was that Steve Sarkisian simply coached circles around Ryan Day and Ohio State defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs. That’s what stood out to me the most in this game. Alabama’s offense was simply a step ahead of Ohio State’s defense at all times–sometimes two steps, honestly. Bama was playing chess, Ohio State was playing checkers.

Sark just found ways to get guys open consistently. Pre-snap motion with Devonta Smith, screens to Najee Harris that Ohio State had no answer for–the Bama offense was just unstoppable. Ohio State had zero answers for anything Alabama was doing. Halftime adjustments didn’t help at all, as Bama was scoring just as easily in the second half as they were in the first.

Look, even at full health Ohio State was starting this game at a talent deficit with Bama. I went over this in my National Championship preview post. But Ohio State wasn’t even at full health. They came into the game missing two starting defensive linemen, Tommy Togiai and Tyreke Smith. Those two came up huge for the Buckeyes against Clemson. I know given the final score it seems like these two guys wouldn’t have made much of a difference, but Ohio State was not getting any pressure on Mac Jones in this game. It all starts with the defensive line. If the QB has all day to throw, then the secondary is fighting an uphill battle from the start, and Ohio State’s was.

Trey Sermon broke his clavicle on the first play of the game, too. Wyatt Davis went down with what looked like a severe knee injury at the end of the first half. And I think Ohio State lost a defensive lineman sometime in the first quarter. On top of that, I’m sure Justin Fields wasn’t completely healthy. There were a few hits he took where he looked like he was in serious pain, and the giveaway was the playcalling: Ohio State ran in a lot of situations you’d expect a pass. I think they were kind of protecting Fields.

But it’s not as if Bama was completely healthy. They lost Devonta Smith early in the third quarter with what I’m going to assume was a broken finger. Jaylen Waddle was limping around all game long. However, by the time Bama lost Smith they were up big already, and it was clear they could do whatever they wanted on offense.

I really don’t think there was a massive talent deficit in that game, though. It was scheme and playcalling that were the difference. Bama was consistently getting Najee Harris open out in the flat. Devonta Smith would sneak out and get open. Sure, Alabama’s power running game was on full display early on those goal line 4th down conversions, but overall, I saw Ohio State just get out-coached by a mile.

Even on the defensive side, Alabama made adjustments that Ohio State had no answer for. Early in the game, Ohio State was matching Bama score-for-score. It was 14-14 at one point, and it looked like Fields was getting great protection in the pocket. He was sitting back there and picking Bama apart. But then Bama started calling more blitzes and found different ways to put pressure on him. They started out just rushing the front four, and when that wasn’t working they made adjustments. Ohio State didn’t, and their offense ground to a halt by the middle of the second quarter.

Ohio State’s only hope of winning this game was to out-coach and out-scheme Bama. When you’re at a talent deficit, there’s really no other way to win the game. But Ohio State was playing at an even greater coaching deficit than they were a talent deficit. This is why Bama routinely dominates teams like LSU and Georgia, who recruit extremely well: coaching. And it’s why Bama dominated last night.

My prediction of a 45-41 Ohio State win was obviously wrong. Nobody was beating that Bama team this season. Nobody. Ohio State blew out Clemson and Bama blew out Ohio State.

The truth is that Ohio State was the second-best team in the country this year, and they were still 28 points worse than Bama. That’s how far ahead of everyone else Bama was this year.

Is this year’s Bama team better than last year’s LSU team? It’s tough to say. I definitely think Joe Burrow was better than Mac Jones. That LSU team last year had a ton of talent on offense, too. Justin Jefferson, Jamarr Chase, Thaddeus Moss, Clyde Edwards-Helaire.

But look at these wins Bama compiled this year:

Then again, a lot of people are going to downplay this Bama team’s accomplishments by saying it was a fake Covid season, and honestly that’s not a totally unfair point. More than any other sport, fans make an impact in college football. Not having all the fans and the pageantry and the traditions and the madness really diminishes the sport and makes it different. I’m not saying Bama wouldn’t have won had the season been a normal one, but I am saying it was such a weird season for everyone.

Ohio State only played 8 games to Bama’s 13. Ohio State almost didn’t even have a season this year. The whole college football season overall was a complete mess.

But if a team like, say, Coastal Carolina would’ve won the Natty, I think then you could’ve said “Yeah, this was a fluke season.” But it’s not a fluke when Bama wins the Championship. This was Nick Saban’s 6th at Alabama and his 7th overall. This is a routine occurrence.

And yes, I think this solidifies Nick Saban as the GOAT of college football, technically speaking. When it comes to the records and the hardware, yes, Nick Saban is the best to ever do it. But Bear Bryant turned Alabama into a powerhouse program in the first place. There will never be any surpassing the man who built the program in that regard. It’s like the LeBron-MJ debate: LeBron is the better basketball player, but he will not and probably can not ever surpass what MJ did for the game overall. It’s the intangibles, the immeasurables.

Nick Saban and Bill Belichick are unquestionably the two greatest football coaches of the past 20 years, and a strong argument can be made that both are the greatest coaches of all time at their respective levels.

But I want to go a little deeper into why Nick Saban is the greatest coach of his era: it’s because of his willingness to adapt and evolve in response to the changing nature of college football.

Nick Saban has changed his whole coaching philosophy over the past few years. For most of Nick Saban’s coaching career, his teams have been defined by elite defense, power running and game-manager QBs. Bama QBs were generally not asked to do much other than hand the ball off and not turn the ball over. But in recent years Bama has become a high-flying offensive juggernaut.

Compare this 2020 Bama team to the 2011 Bama team, or even the 2017 Bama team. They’re completely different in terms of how they win games.

I think Nick Saban deserves a ton of credit for evolving along with the game. He’s 69 years old. He’s been coaching football for decades. And on top of all that, he’s got the most talented rosters in the sport year after year, and thus can play any brand of football he wants. You’d expect a guy like him to be old-school, stubborn and refuse to change his coaching philosophy in response to changes in the game, but he absolutely has changed his overall gameplan to be more passing-focused and dynamic. The last guy to embrace the “Air Raid-ification” of football would be Nick Saban, you’d think. But you’d be wrong.

It seems like all of college football is becoming more and more like the Big 12: lots of passing, lots of scoring, quick hurry-up offenses, and less emphasis on defense. At Bama, it started when Saban hired Lane Kiffin to be his offensive coordinator back in 2014, and really came to full fruition when he benched Jalen Hurts for Tua at halftime of the 2017 National Championship game. From that moment on, Bama became much more of a passing-focused offense.

The biggest sign of the times was 2019’s Bama-LSU “Game of the Century II.” Joe Burrow and Tua put on a major display of offensive fireworks in a game LSU ended up winning 46-41. The teams combined for 1,100 yards of total offense, with Tua and Burrow throwing for 418 and 393 yards respectively.

The 2011 Bama-LSU “Game of the Century I,” on the other hand, saw the teams combine for just 534 yards of total offense, with Bama’s AJ McCarron throwing for 199 yards and LSU’s two QBs combining for just 91 yards. That game went to overtime finished with a final score of 9-6 LSU.

The sport has changed dramatically since that 2011 game.

Last night we saw one of the most brilliant play-calling performances ever by Alabama. You can give Steve Sarkisian all the credit for it and say Saban was just letting him do his thing, and maybe that’s true. But it was Saban who hired Sarkisian in the first place. Saban gave Sarkisian a second shot after he got fired as head coach of USC in 2015 for his much-publicized battles with alcoholism. Saban realized he had to adapt offensively to the changing nature of the sport, and he trusted Sarkisian to overhaul his offense.

Sark will now depart Tuscaloosa to take over the Texas Longhorns as head coach. Longhorn fans have got to be unbelievably excited about the Sarkisian Era after what they witnessed last night, but it remains to be seen if Sark can put it all together as the head coach of the program. He’s shown that he’s an elite offensive playcaller, but can he put the right people in charge of the defense? Can he recruit? Can he create a winning culture? It’s a big step going from offensive coordinator to CEO of the whole football program, but Sark has learned from the best of the best.

You’ve got to be optimistic if you’re a Texas fan. They’ll have the talent to get back to elite-status, and now they have a coach that has just graduated magna cum laude from the Saban School of Coaching. Let’s hope Texas can become elite again, because college football is becoming way too top-heavy these days.

Finally, I want to add one last thing: maybe I was too hard on Trevor Lawrence after the Clemson-Ohio State game. After he was thoroughly outplayed by Justin Fields in that game, I pointed out that it was now two straight big games (potentially three depending on your opinion of the 2019 Ohio State-Clemson game) in which he had been outclassed by the other team’s QB. I said I thought Trevor Lawrence was kind of overrated.

But after seeing last night’s game, in which Alabama basically did to Ohio State what Ohio State did to Clemson on January 1, I’m willing to cut Lawrence some slack.

I still think Justin Fields is a better QB and QB prospect than Mac Jones despite what happened in the National Championship. Mac Jones just had better talent and coaching. So I’ve got to apply the same standard for Trevor Lawrence. His team was simply out-coached and out-talented (if that’s even a word) against Ohio State, and it wouldn’t be fair to hold all of that against him. It’s unfair to expect one player to overcome both a talent and a coaching gap, even if he is the most hyped QB prospect in nearly a decade.

You can’t put it all on the QB’s shoulders. There’s more to it than that.

I still maintain that I’ve been slightly underwhelmed by Trevor Lawrence since the 2018 National Championship game against Bama, and I still have some doubts as to whether he’s really the next Andrew Luck or Peyton Manning, but I’m not as adamant anymore that he’s overrated.

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