USA TODAY US Edition

Wolken on Tide; de­fense fails Ohio State.

- Dan Wolken Sports · College Sports · American Football · Ohio · Ohio State University · Miami Gardens, FL · Miami · Florida · Alabama · University of Notre Dame · Hard Rock Stadium · Nick Saban · Louisiana State University · Georgia · Clemson, SC · Auburn · Texas A&M University · College Football · Bear Bryant · Bryant · Steve Sarkisian · Justin Fields

MIAMI GAR­DENS, Fla. – Eight years ago, Alabama brought one of the most tal­ent-laden teams in the mod­ern his­tory of col­lege foot­ball onto this very field and needed all of a quar­ter to hu­mil­i­ate Notre Dame in a na­tional cham­pi­onship game.

If you had been in Hard Rock Sta­dium that night, the sug­ges­tion that Alabama would be back here eight years later with an even more ter­ri­fy­ing team might have seemed ab­surd. Nick Sa­ban, in win­ning his third na­tional ti­tle in four years back then, seemed to have this sport fig­ured out in a way no­body had ever re­ally fig­ured it out. How much bet­ter could it re­ally get?

You couldn’t even en­vi­sion such a thing.

Un­til it hap­pened.

Alabama 2.0 of­fi­cially ar­rived as a cham­pi­onship prod­uct Mon­day night, re­assert­ing it­self as the un­ri­valed best pro­gram in col­lege foot­ball, toy­ing with a very good Ohio State team and in­spir­ing a re­lapse of that fa­mil­iar heart­burn op­po­nents felt a decade ago when noth­ing short of per­fec­tion would be good enough to com­pete.

With Mon­day’s 52-24 win, Sa­ban’s rein­ven­tion of Alabama foot­ball from a python that squeezes the life out of op­po­nents to a ram­pag­ing chee­tah that can­not be caught is now com­plete. With na­tional ti­tle No. 6 se­cured – and Sa­ban’s seventh over­all in­clud­ing one at LSU which gives him more than any ma­jor col­lege coach in his­tory, in­clud­ing Bear Bryant – Alabama has never seemed more un­touch­able.

“I think we’re the best team to ever play,” quar­ter­back Mac Jones said.

If Sa­ban’s first decade proved what can be done when you com­bine Alabama’s re­sources with elite tal­ent and a head coach’s ma­ni­a­cal drive – Sa­ban fa­mously com­plained once that play­ing in the na­tional ti­tle game cut into his re­cruit­ing time – the fi­nal chap­ter of his ca­reer is go­ing to show us how thor­oughly he has hacked this sport.

With an oth­er­worldly of­fense that made ev­ery­thing look easy – not only Mon­day but all sea­son – Alabama hasn’t just got­ten back on top. It’s re­opened a siz­able gap on the small hand­ful of pro­grams that have enough tal­ent to win a na­tional ti­tle in the first place.

Once again, the Ohio States and Clem­sons and LSUs are go­ing to have to fig­ure out a way to catch up. It won’t be easy.

Be­cause of all Sa­ban’s gifts as a coach, his great­est has now been re­vealed. At age 69, af­ter spend­ing decades try­ing to grind op­po­nents to dust, he has em­braced a fre­netic, hy­per­ag­gres­sive of­fen­sive style as the best way to win cham­pi­onships. He’s not the first coach to ar­rive at that con­clu­sion, but once he did he ex­e­cuted it bet­ter than any­body, pair­ing the best skill tal­ent with a sys­tem de­signed to squeeze ev­ery play pos­si­ble out of it.

Good luck, ev­ery­one.

The re­al­ity for the rest of col­lege foot­ball is this hel­la­cious team that av­er­aged just shy of 50 points per game is merely a cul­mi­na­tion of what Alabama had been build­ing for the last three years. From the mo­ment a rel­a­tively un­known fresh­man re­ceiver named DeVonta Smith caught a pass against Ge­or­gia three years ago to win Sa­ban’s last na­tional ti­tle, this was the desti­na­tion. Now the fun re­ally be­gins.

“Ball has changed. It’s more wide open, more spread, and this team has adapted and we’ve changed with it,” Sa­ban said. “Our of­fense was the key to the suc­cess of this team. We were an OK de­fen­sive team. We played well enough and got enough stops and the of­fense was dy­namic and that’s what made the dif­fer­ence.”

As al­ways, there will be change at Alabama.

Of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Steve Sark­isian, who pretty much pitched 13 per­fect games this sea­son, is headed to Texas. Smith leaves as a mon­ster of a Heis­man Tro­phy win­ner, whose first half alone against Ohio State – 12 catches, 215 yards and three touch­downs – would have been con­sid­ered an all-time great per­for­mance in a cham­pi­onship game. There will be of­fen­sive line­men who need to be re­placed, a cou­ple of high­level run­ning backs who de­part. Quar­ter­back Mac Jones, who has been chron­i­cally un­der­rated un­til com­plet­ing 36 of 45 passes for 464 yards and five touch­downs (with no in­ter­cep­tions) against Ohio State, is likely gone as well. So what.

In De­cem­ber, Alabama signed three of the top eight re­ceivers in the class of 2021, got a com­mit­ment from the topranked run­ning back and has last year’s top quar­ter­back re­cruit in Bryce Young wait­ing in the wings.

Sa­ban has al­ways re­cruited great play­ers, but once he com­mit­ted to a spread of­fense that was go­ing to let them put up big sta­tis­tics along with their cham­pi­onships, what ad­van­tage does any other pro­gram have?

“I think it’s made a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence,” Sa­ban said of the phi­los­o­phy change that now al­lows his skill play­ers to com­pile video game num­bers. “We’ve grad­u­ally changed through the years to be more spread-ori­ented but still keep pro-style drop-back con­cepts with our of­fense, le­git­i­mate play-ac­tion passes so this whole sort of blend of all th­ese things in cre­at­ing bal­ance to be able to run, make ex­plo­sive plays, play-ac­tion passes that com­ple­ment the runs and RPOs (run-pass op­tions) to count peo­ple in the box.”

Of course Alabama isn’t go­ing to win ev­ery game un­til the end of time. No­body does.

But for as much tal­ent as they’ve com­piled at Ohio State and as much win­ning cul­ture as they’ve built at Clem­son and as much ex­cite­ment as they’ve got with a new coach at Auburn and as much mo­men­tum as Texas A&M built this sea­son, how do you re­al­is­ti­cally catch back up with this?

At least with the old Alabama, you could hope for missed field goals and turnovers. With this ver­sion, the mar­gin for er­ror seems end­less.

“I think there’s a feel­ing of, if you don’t score you’re go­ing to get down and the pres­sure mounts,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said.

Ohio State showed up Mon­day in a tough spot. Two start­ing de­fen­sive line­men were out due to COVID-19 pro­to­cols, run­ning back Trey Ser­mon got hurt on the first play of the game and quar­ter­back Justin Fields seemed to still be both­ered by the hip/torso in­jury he suf­fered in the Sugar Bowl.

Even un­der the best of cir­cum­stances, this was go­ing to be a heavy lift for the Buck­eyes – and th­ese were far from the best cir­cum­stances. But would it have re­ally mat­tered?

Alabama never re­ally went away the last cou­ple of years, but the Crim­son Tide are em­phat­i­cally back on top of the sport. And just like they did eight years ago in this sta­dium, the hori­zon for their dom­i­nance once again seems lim­it­less.

 ?? GARY COSBY JR./THE TUSCALOOSA (ALA.) NEWS ?? Wide re­ceiver DeVonta Smith, left, and quar­ter­back Mac Jones posted record-set­ting gains in Alabama’s ti­tle win.
GARY COSBY JR./THE TUSCALOOSA (ALA.) NEWS Wide re­ceiver DeVonta Smith, left, and quar­ter­back Mac Jones posted record-set­ting gains in Alabama’s ti­tle win.
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