Seven-Step Drop: DeVonta Smith's Brilliance Bookends the Nick Saban 2.0 Coaching Evolution

The record-setting Heisman Trophy winner needed just one half to put his stamp on Saban's sixth national title at Alabama

Nick Saban is not one known to the outside world for his effusive personality or outward displays of emotions. He is famously stern, could trademark each one of his sideline tirades and lights up social media for every glancing grin he makes.

 

Twice in recent memory however, the elation has radiated away from the sexagenarian Alabama head coach for more than just a fleeting second or two — there was the aftermath of a play called "Seattle" in January 2018 and there was what happened following a college football season unlike any other as the Crimson Tide captured the national championship with a dominating 52-24 win over Ohio State on Monday night.

 

One common thread between the two was prodigious wide receiver DeVonta Smith, whose first (and only) touch in that title game three years ago in Atlanta was etched into school lore as second-and-26 and immortalized as the rarest of rarities in football: a walk-off touchdown for a ring.

 

If that was Smith's opening salvo into college football history though, he left no doubt as to his place in the pantheon Monday night with 12 catches for 215 yards and three scores — all of which came in the first half before he injured his hand on the first drive of the third quarter. The Heisman wideout who had won pretty much all there was to win individually added yet more hardware to his case after the contest just as he cemented that of his head coach as the greatest of all time with yet more brilliance on the big stage.

 

"This team has really accomplished a lot to be able to do what they did," Saban said. "I think ball has changed, it's a little more wide open, it's a little more spread. This team has adapted and we've changed with it."

 

Indeed, this is not your "three yards and a cloud of dust" unit — nor has it been in Tuscaloosa for some time now. Defensively, giving up big plays is no longer seen as uncharacteristic but simply par for the course. Smith is a natural focal point to not only how Saban had adjusted to winning in this era of college football but also just how terrifyingly good his teams are becoming in putting a gap between them and just about everybody else.

 

Take quarterback Mac Jones for example. He attempted his 40th pass of the night with more than five minutes remaining in the third quarter. For perspective, Alabama threw it 40 or more times in a game just twice in any game during their other championship-winning seasons combined.

 

Saban needed a gutsy onside kick to hold off Deshaun Watson for his first of three (and counting) College Football Playoff titles. He needed an even gutsier move of inserting Tua Tagovailoa in at quarterback after halftime against Georgia and Smith's incredible dash to the end zone for a second.

 

For a third? Just pure unadulterated destruction of the Buckeyes at every turn. That Death Star moniker for the Tide has never rung more true than it does now and the upgrades were more than fully operational in every sense of the word.

 

Alabama has now won fully half of the national titles in the past dozen years. In the entire playoff era, Saban has lost just eight times and this year's edition was the first to go wire-to-wire in the CFP rankings. They averaged 48.5 points per game against an all-SEC regular schedule and a slate exclusively consisting of Power 5 opponents.

 

This team won the Heisman Trophy, Maxwell (most outstanding player), Walter Camp (player of the year), Doak Walker (best RB), Davey O'Brien (best QB), Johnny Unitas (best Senior QB), Biletnikoff (best WR), Outland (best interior lineman), Rimington (best center), Joe Moore (best offensive line), Paul Hornung (most versatile player), and Broyles (best assistant coach) awards.

 

Maybe the truest hallmark of these champions is that in a season marked by disruptions due to COVID-19 and the general messiness of playing a global pandemic, few doubled down on the real process and fought a (relative) successful battle on two fronts — the likes of which no title winners have seen in this lifetime.

 

"I told this team in the very beginning that we're going to have a lot of disruptions and that the team that handles the disruptions the best, is the team that's going to have the best chance to be successful in the end," said Saban. "It actually made the team closer and we became a better team because of some of the disruptions."

 

Such perseverance won't show up in the box scores or be noted with asterisks in the history books but it will undoubtedly add to the legacy of both Saban and this team in particular.

 

There will be a lot written and said, now that this campaign has been waged, over whether or not it was worth it to have a college football season amid a deadly global pandemic. That conversation however, is for another time — five, 10, 15 years down the road. That is when an ultimate judgement can be made over whether it was worth it or now.

 

Yet it is okay to say that after witnessing that effort on the field in South Florida that it was a more than appropriate conclusion to the roller coaster that all FBS schools have been on since March 2020. Two historic powerhouses took divergent paths this season, starting and stopping along the way before clashing between the lines until a rather predictable scoreline took hold.

 

One team emerged a worthy champion for the time — its coach emerged looking fully ready for another decade of dominance as a new normalcy appears to be setting into college football just as it had in 2009.

 

"Come on man, of course he is," Jones quipped with a smile when asked if his coach was the greatest of all time. "How could he not be?"

 

After what has transpired in those bookends surrounding a pair of DeVonta Smith dashes to the end zone, there won't be anybody arguing the point either.

 

Tweet of the Game

 

 

Play of the Game

 

 

Stat(s) of the Game

 

 

 

Title Game Superlatives

 

Best players (non-DeVonta Smith edition): Najee Harris, Christian Barmore

Goat of the Game: Kerry Combs, Ohio State defensive coordinator

G.O.A.T.: Nick Saban

 

The 25

 

Here's my final top 25 for the 2020 season:

 

1. Alabama

2. Ohio State

3. Clemson

4. Notre Dame

5. Texas A&M

6. Oklahoma

7. BYU

8. Georgia

9. Cincinnati

10. Coastal Carolina

11. Iowa State

12. Florida

13. Louisiana

14. Indiana

15. Northwestern

16. Iowa

17. Tulsa

18. Liberty

19. Texas

20. Army

21. USC

22. North Carolina

23. Ball State

24. San Jose State

25. Oklahoma State

 

Pre-Snap Reads

 

And here's my early top 25 for the 2021 season before the usual slew of draft declarations, transfers and other roster changes makes it moot:

 

1. Clemson

2. Oklahoma

3. Alabama

4. Georgia

5. Ohio State

6. Texas A&M

7. Cincinnati

8. Iowa State

9. Indiana

10. Oregon

11. Iowa

12. USC

13. Notre Dame

14. Texas

15. Louisiana

16. Penn State

17. Miami

18. LSU

19. North Carolina

20. Wisconsin

21. Ole Miss

22. Florida

23. Arizona State

24. Coastal Carolina

25. Utah

 

— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.

 

(Top photo courtesy of @AlabamaFTBL)

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