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ATLANTA — Weary-eyed and sleep deprived, Alabama sat at the dais as national champions.
Nick Saban, Tua Tagovailoa and Da’Ron Payne, the head coach, freshman sensation quarterback and defensive lineman stalwart, tried to stay engaged despite clearly needing sleep Tuesday morning in the national championship game follow-up press conference.
Turns out the celebration for all went well into the night.
“I think I just laid there last night,” Payne, the championship game defensive MVP said. “I didn’t really get too much sleep.”
That was likely the case for all Alabama players, coaches and fans after a heart-stopping, adrenaline-pumping game that raised heart rates and called for sleep to wait. The heavy eyelids were easy to spot.
It’s rare that the game’s pinnacle produces a walk-off moment, and, for UA fans at least, it came so unexpectedly after a dud of a first half. Saban said the 24-hour rule still stands in effect, but he won’t exactly begrudge his players from reveling in the a little bit longer.
“…Isn’t there ‘Sleepless in Seattle?’” Saban said. “This is kind of Sleepless in Atlanta. I did some thinking about next year’s team, talked to players after the game, seven of them, that may consider going out for the (NFL) Draft. Probably have several that should and probably have several that shouldn’t, from a business perspective.
“But I think i’m going to (enjoy this). I really do.”
Saban didn’t disclose the seven underclassmen he met with but it’s reasonable to assume six: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Da’Ron Payne, Calvin Ridley, Ronnie Harrison, Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough. Those players will have decisions to make soon, and before even leaving the Mercedes Benz Stadium, Saban was calculating what those departures might mean for the 2018 Crimson Tide.
As per usual, Saban wasn’t in the mood to discuss his place in history. He’ll leave that to others. But he did have a keen sense of how special Monday night was. His team down 13-0 at half, Saban delivered a message that resonated.
“My last comment to the team before we went our for the second half was we’ve been behind 24-3 and scored 45 points on a team and won a game,” Saban said. “So if we’ll just focus on execution and having the discipline to do your job and do it with great effort, toughness, and being more physical than the other team, we just need to execute and play our game. If we do that, we’ll give ourselves a chance to win, and the players did.”
More important than that, though, was his decision to bench his starting quarterback, Jalen Hurts, in the second half for an unproven freshman. It completely turned the game and its results will echo throughout the history of college football. Of course, that means there will undoubtedly be a quarterback competition (or controversy depending on your viewpoint) going into next season. That’s a problem for next season, though.
“Look, we have two good quarterbacks on our team, no doubt,” Saban said. “Both of them made great contribution to the success of the team this year. I think that we haven’t really made a decision about that. I don’t think it’s imperative that we make one right now We’ve got two fine young men who really respect each other and have worked hard to help each other all year long. Hopefully we’ll be able to continue to do that in the future.”
Saban isn’t one for great nostalgia, preferring to be where his feet are, that is, in the moment. But he did pause for reflection, basking in the rare morning afterglow he rarely allows the public to see. That, perhaps more than anything, tells the story of just how rare Monday night’s game really was.
“This has been a wonderful experience for us,” he said. “This will be a game that I’ll never forget. Just the ending itself. I think you forget that we scored on fourth down, missed a field goal to win, and then got sacked before we made a big play to win the game. There are a lot of things that happened that were critical moments in the game, but really, really pleased with the way our players responded each and every time they had a circumstance it seemed like it might be very difficult to overcome.”
Reach Aaron Suttles at email@example.com or at 205-722-0229.