Why Alabama football coach Nick Saban said this SEC championship 'is the absolute best'
ATLANTA — Nick Saban won his ninth SEC Championship Game as a head coach on Saturday. Some have been more impactful — the 2009 win exacted revenge a year in the making and kept an undefeated season intact — and some have been even more thrilling, such as the 2012 game that came down to the final play.
Yet, asked by CBS’ Allie LaForce if this one feels different, Saban did much more than praise an individual performance.
“This is the best. This is the absolute best because I absolutely love this team,” Saban said.
That team is now 11-0, champion of the SEC and confirmed No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoff, due to face No. 4 Notre Dame in a semifinal on Jan. 1. For more than its on-field exploits, it has carved out a soft spot in Saban’s heart.
“I think I'm really proud of our team for the way they competed all year long,” Saban said. “This has been a year of lots of disruptions, a lot of abnormal things happening. The resiliency that our team has shown throughout the season to win 11 games is pretty phenomenal. I think it speaks to the togetherness on the team, everybody sort of buying in, trying to do the things they needed to do to contribute to the team.
“I think that unselfishness and everybody trying to contribute in a positive way, whatever their role is, has really been heartfelt to me. That's why I enjoy this team so much. I've enjoyed this team all year long.”
To whatever extent personal choice and discipline supersedes luck in avoiding the season’s most obvious challenge, COVID-19, Alabama has done it. UA did not have a starter miss a game without an obvious injury explanation until tackle Evan Neal’s absence from the regular-season finale against Arkansas, just for Neal to return on Saturday against Florida.
When UA met on-field adversity, it always overcame, especially offensively. In the season's third game, against Ole Miss, quarterback Mac Jones said the offense knew it would have to score on every possession to win, and it nearly did. In a similar situation two months later, this time without wide receiver Jaylen Waddle, it did it again: four straight touchdown drives to end the first half and three scoring drives in the fourth quarter.
“I have to give our offense a lot of credit. They answered the bell pretty consistently in the game, over 600 yards, (wide receiver DeVonta Smith) had 15 catches, Najee (Harris) scored five touchdowns, had 178 yards rushing, caught five passes,” Saban said. "These guys were pretty phenomenal all year. They certainly delivered tonight when we needed them to.”
Their reward: confirmation of admiration from their coach.
“That touches our hearts because we don't hear nice things like that from coach Saban all the time,” safety Jordan Battle said. “Usually it's criticism. When we hear things like that, man, it's like a, ‘Whew, he actually loves us.’ We love to hear that.”
Along with it, an SEC championship.
“I think the relentless sort of competitive spirit that this team has is something that you don't really make or develop. It's just the kind of people that they are,” Saban said. “We're really, really pleased and happy that they're going to get rewarded for this. They accomplished something significant that they'll remember the rest of their life.”
Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson