GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Alabama's seniors, those who have spent a full four seasons plowing their way through just about every college football team that has crossed their path, won 50 games in their career. (They lost six.) They have won these games in just about every fashion you can imagine, from blowouts (the most common), fourth-quarter comebacks, 9-7 slugfests, 45-42 shootouts, home games, road games, bowl games, rivalry games. You name it, they've done it.
The one constant, the entire time, even in the losses, was that Alabama always looked like the best team on the field. It's not for nothing that, until the game at Georgia this September, the Crimson Tide had been the Vegas odds favorite for 72 consecutive contests, dating back to 2009. (They, of course, went out and hammered the Bulldogs, 38-10, and haven't been an underdog since.) Alabama being better than the team it's playing has been a given for nearly a decade now. The theories on how opponents can overcome this inherent disadvantage have been plentiful -- have a mobile quarterback, run a fast-paced offense, be Mississippi -- but ultimately, it has often come down to pure chance and good fortune. Teams that beat Alabama generally need everything to fall exactly right for them on a particular Saturday. To beat a team that's better than you, that's how it has to go down. You need to get lucky, frankly.
Which is why the most amazing thing about Alabama's 45-40 College Football Playoff National Championship victory over Clemson on Monday night/Tuesday morning was that, for most of the game, Alabama didn't look like the better team at all. Clemson was doing everything right, on both sides of the ball. Alabama quarterback Jake Coker was repeatedly knocked around and sacked on first down. Clemson's former walk-on wide receiver Hunter Renfrow kept beating five-star cornerbacks downfield. And, most of all, Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson had his Vince Young game, scrambling out of trouble, outrushing his team's running backs and showing frighteningly pinpoint accuracy on deep balls. (You're going to see a lot of NFL teams losing a lot of games next December to have the honor of Watson on their roster.) Watson was the best player on a field that was positively littered with future All-Pros, and man, was he ever driving Alabama coach Nick Saban crazy. If there was one familiarity, it was a mobile quarterback driving Saban insane.
Not exaggerating, I think Saban ripped out some of his hair here. https://t.co/6JQX1ofEBo— Isaac (@WorldofIsaac) January 12, 2016
(When Alabama finally sacked Watson for the first time late in the third quarter, the Alabama fans in the stands made one of their loudest sounds of the night. It felt like catching a fly with chopsticks.)
Alabama never looked outmatched, necessarily, but it looked like the Other team in the sports movie, the one that helped burnish the legacy of the superstar in the midst of his highlight video. Clemson looked not just ready to take Alabama's best punch with a stiffer jaw than its previous opponents, but actually able to hit back harder.
So the Crimson Tide had to do what teams trying to beat them have to do: Catch every break, get risky and unconventional, get some freak big plays and hope like hell. And damned if it didn't work. This, as it turned out, was a new way for Alabama to win, discovered in the biggest game of all: Act like you're playing Alabama.
How do teams usually beat Alabama? They:
• Take advantage of turnovers and don't make any of their own. Alabama didn't turn the ball over once, and the one mistake Watson made -- a misguided throw into double coverage that was intercepted -- the Crimson Tide converted into a touchdown very quickly.
• Make big plays. This was not the typical Alabama M.O. of, to paraphrase Spencer Hall, getting an early lead and then picking you up in the air and letting you kick your legs pointlessly until you eventually just die. When Mississippi beat Alabama earlier this year, it capitalized on five 'Bama turnovers and made big plays. Clemson controlled the pace of this game, but Alabama just kept making huge play after huge play, with three touchdowns of more than 50 yards. Alabama had 335 yards of total offense, but 217 of those came on four plays, including three long passes to tight end O.J. Howard. These plays were the result of a busted coverage or a big whole up the middle … aberrations from what Clemson was doing every other play. Alabama, like underdogs since the beginning of time, took advantage.
• Get a big special teams play. Just when Clemson was revving itself up for a big stop late … Kenyan Drake ran a kickoff return all the way back for a touchdown.
• Aren't afraid to get a little crazy. Saban pulled a huge David-thwarting-Goliath move with his most stunning, batsh!t-crazy, evil-genius call in recent memory, shocking millions with a perfect onside kick right after Alabama had tied the game up with a field goal. Saban, typically the establishment general relying on his superior troops, went out and won a national championship with the most guerilla warfare tactic imaginable.
Lane Kiffin said he was "stunned" when Saban called the onside kick. Said he had to be careful not to make a face that would give it away.— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) January 12, 2016
And yes, there was of course the smile that, if anyone involved with the institution had a sense of humor, would be on his Hall of Fame bust.
This is the ultimate brilliance of Saban, a new arrow in his quiver. He realized, midway through the game, that Clemson was every bit the match for his Alabama team. Rather than be alarmed by this, he used the same tactics that teams attempt -- and usually fail -- to use against him. And yeah, he got a little luck along the way. The most truly dangerous empires are the ones that adapt to their enemies' strategies, who even co-opt them when necessary. Alabama, the ultimate favorite, played like the underdog Monday night, throwing the kitchen sink at a team that otherwise might have had its number. This is usually the only way Alabama loses. This time, it was the only way it won. It almost doesn't seem fair.
But that's why it's Alabama, and the rest of us aren't.