MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — After four months of college football, the national championship comes down to the two teams that most Americans would have guessed in August.
Alabama can beat Clemson again, as it has done twice in the three College Football Playoff meetings so far. But there are things to clean up. Because if that doesn’t happen, Alabama can certainly bring about its own downfall.
There was an abundance of little things that hurt the Crimson Tide, although there was never a feeling that danger was imminent against an Oklahoma defense that struggled to get off the field without help. A false start against right tackle Jedrick Wills pushed Alabama from a third-and-inches to a third-and-six and probably cost UA four points and a headset at the end of the first half.
An inexplicable fair catch decision by Brian Robinson cost Alabama what would certainly have been good field position when Oklahoma was kicking off from its own 10-yard line because of two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.
“There were a lot of things that we can do better,” UA coach Nick Saban said, after scoring 45 points and winning against a top four team.
Then came the money quote: “I’m always thinking ahead.”
That started long before Saturday. Thinking ahead was an element in Saban’s patience as Jalen Hurts made his decision to stay with the team. It happens on the other side as well — Dabo Swinney’s decision to, in essence, cut quarterback Kelly Bryant loose and replace him with freshman Trevor Lawrence wasn’t made because Clemson couldn’t win ACC games with Bryant. It was made, almost certainly, because Swinney was thinking ahead to what would give his Tigers the best chance against Alabama.
There is a question that came out of Saturday night, though, that might settle things. Tua Tagovailoa was clearly healthy and nearly perfect. He rose to exactly the level that was needed, as he did in the early season, when he and his offensive teammates would put teams away before halftime. Against Oklahoma, his impressive statistics could have been better.
The OU secondary was as suspect as advertised. But Saban never really saw the need to press the pedal to the floor and go 100 miles an hour. Tagovailoa threw only 10 times in the second half, completing nine. The coach said he exhorted his players not to relax because of Oklahoma’s offensive firepower, but he clearly felt more comfortable with the Sooners’ offense on the sideline. Credit Oklahoma for a 60-minute fight, but there were times when it felt like Alabama was running a bit of a Clemson test laboratory.
That big question, though, may come down to whether Tagovailoa can call on deeper reserves, the ones that he tapped into in last year’s Georgia game. Clemson may test him. Georgia did in the SEC Championship Game, but it is unfair to measure that performance in which he was clearly hampered by injury.
On Saturday, things worked out well. Nick Saban spent the post-game tossing oranges, a safer alternative than headsets.
Alabama has now won 16 straight games and is 14-0 this year. A spot in history awaits next Monday’s winner, though. So while the win against Oklahoma — Alabama’s first in 56 years — was laudable, the crowning achievement is still ahead.
Just as everyone sort of suspected it would be all along.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.
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