Alabama Heads Back to Title Game Behind Saban's Best Coaching Job of His Career

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterJanuary 1, 2022

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - DECEMBER 31: Head coach Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide celebrates with the team after the Alabama Crimson Tide defeated the Cincinnati Bearcats 27-6 in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic for the College Football Playoff semifinal game at AT&T Stadium on December 31, 2021 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

There have been better Alabama teams. 

This, of course, is harsh criticism for a team headed to the national championship for the second consecutive season and the sixth time in seven years. (That second part, by the way, is ridiculous.)

But the 2021 version of the Crimson Tide won't be remembered like the 2020 team, which overwhelmed just about everyone with points. It will be looked at differently than the suffocating 2009 and 2011 squads, which were stylistically distinctive versus the way Alabama plays today.  

This team is different. Imperfect. Mortal. Flawed. 

All of these traits make the job Nick Saban has done this season perhaps his finest yet, which says plenty considering how stacked that conversation is.  

Pick a season, any season. With Saban, there is no shortage of brilliance to sift through. His resume at Alabama since he arrived in Tuscaloosa before the 2007 campaign is nearly pristine.  

Six national championships, an overall record of 178-24 and a seemingly endless stream of superb recruiting classes that blossom into superb NFL draft classes are just a few of the highlights from the greatest coach to ever grace a sideline. 

Win No. 178 came against Cincinnati in the Cotton Bowl. Alabama won the College Football Playoff semifinal 27-6, cruising over the final 30 minutes.

In many ways, this game was a throwback. It was the kind of performance Alabama mastered before Lane Kiffin touched down in Tuscaloosa and changed the way the offense operated.  

Heisman-winning quarterback Bryce Young was largely held in check. That has rarely been the case this year, although Cincinnati did an excellent job keeping him under duress. 

Instead, running back Brian Robinson Jr. ultimately did much of the heavy lifting. Robinson, who was banged up near the end of the regular season, ran for 204 yards on 26 carries. Cincinnati simply didn't have an answer.

Jeffrey McWhorter/Associated Press

The defense, led by Will Anderson Jr. and his two sacks, limited the Bearcats to 218 total yards. Cincinnati never quite looked comfortable on offense after its first drive, and it was unable to find the end zone.  

Alabama won, as is normally the case in games with these kinds of stakes. It wasn't overwhelming. It wasn't flashy. 

It was vintage 'Bama stealing the soul of another program under the brightest lights. 

Up until the SEC Championship Game, this outcome didn't feel possible. Alabama has looked somewhat human all year—at least by its ridiculously high (and perhaps unfair) standards.  

It wasn't just the loss to Texas A&M, which felt like a deathblow to the season in the moment. The Crimson Tide played close games against LSU and Arkansas before nearly coming undone against Auburn—a result that would have knocked Alabama out of the playoff entirely. 

A total of 10 players from the 2020 team were selected in the last NFL draft. Six of those players—including Heisman-winning wideout DeVonta Smith, wideout Jaylen Waddle, shutdown cornerback Patrick Surtain II and quarterback Mac Jones—have found immediate success in the NFL. 

Jeffrey McWhorter/Associated Press

Alabama also said farewell to offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who was hired at Texas. His departure paved the way for Bill O'Brien to take over the offense. Given Sarkisian's success, however, this was significant.  

For most programs, these departures would signal a rebuilding year. Even for Alabama, which has gotten plenty comfortable losing a wealth of talent and saying farewell to assistant coaches, this felt like a lot to overcome.

For much of the year, perhaps it was. 

That was not to be. And the word "rebuilding" is likely not one Saban would ever care to use or hear. There is no rebuilding at Alabama. That excuse, while fine for some, will never be tolerated. 

While not always dominant, there is something to be said about seeing Alabama scratch and claw its way back to its rightful place. By now, most are numb to it. 

Six national championship trips in seven seasons can do that.

But there is a realness and rawness to what Alabama has done this year, albeit with another crop of supremely gifted players. They have won differently, which was the case Friday night in Texas. 

The constant, of course, is winning. 

This is not normal. It can never be normal. No matter where this Alabama team fits among the ones that came before it—a discussion that will have zero relevance in the national championship on January 10 in Indianapolis—it has a chance to carry on the legacy with one more win. 

For Saban, the GOAT, we're running out of superlatives.  

A win in the title game will net him his eighth national championship, a figure that's beyond description in this era of college football. 

Each one has been different, and the evolution of Alabama since his arrival has been significant. This one, however, stands alone. 

Not because it's the best team he's ever assembled. Not because this group has been perfect along the way. But because it's been anything but.