ATLANTA — Brian Daboll might just be the most disliked man in the state of Georgia.
A year ago he felt the confetti fall from the rafters at Super Bowl LI as an NFL assistant, helping the New England Patriots storm back to improbably beat the Atlanta Falcons in one of the greatest comebacks ever after trailing 28-3.
Less than a year later, in not quite the same fashion but with equal parts the same heartbreak for those in the Peach State, Alabama’s offensive coordinator watched on the sideline as true freshman backup quarterback Tua Tagovailoa delivered a throw that will be talked about from Tuscaloosa to Tunisia years from now. As the ball fell right into the waiting arms of streaking freshman Deonta Smith on a play the program calls “Seattle,” the veteran coach reacted in much the same way he did last February with his arms raised in exhilarating excitement.
“Every championship game that I’ve been a part of has come down to the last play. Last year was the same way with James White,” Daboll said. “There’s going to be some good things that happen in a game and there’s going to be some bad things that happen, but it’s about how you respond under pressure. Do you make the correct read, do you make the right throw?”
Daboll knows better than anybody what making the correct read is in a tight spot after seeing two of the greatest football coaches of all time — his bosses on two unforgettable nights — guide two of the greatest comebacks the sport itself has ever seen. While Bill Belichick was able to rely on another all-time great in Tom Brady to lead the charge last year, things were slightly different at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Monday night (and Tuesday morning) as Alabama improbably secured the 2017 national championship by beating fellow SEC rival Georgia 26-23 in overtime.
The correct read in this case was Nick Saban’s (above, right) gutsiest (and perhaps the shrewdest) move ever seen, given the stage, by benching starting quarterback Jalen Hurts at halftime and inserting Tagovailoa — just the spark the team needed to claw back in the game and deliver the 13th national title to a place that has no equal in college football.
“I felt like that we've had this in our mind that, if we were struggling offensively, that we would give Tua an opportunity, even in the last game,” said Saban, unburdened by the moment and finding some rare joy in a victory where not everything went his team’s way. “I just didn't feel we could run the ball well enough, and I thought Tua would give us a better chance and a spark, which he certainly did.
“I couldn't be prouder of him taking advantage of the opportunity. We have total confidence in him. We played him a lot in a lot of games this year, and he did very well. He certainly did a great job tonight.”
“To be honest with you, we didn’t even know,” linebacker Rashaan Evans, who made history himself (along with punter JK Scott) by playing in every College Football Playoff to date, said of the change behind center. “We changed our mindset (after halftime), to play a lot better. I’m so proud of the way everybody played.”
The original plan was imply to insert Tagovailoa for a few series to give the Bulldogs’ feisty defense a few new looks and hopefully loosen things up after being shutout in the first half. That seemed to change when the strong-armed lefty started to make play after play. After finding Henry Ruggs III in the end zone for the Tide’s first touchdown of the game, there was no more question as to who would be taking the snaps the rest of the way with Alabama right back into a game they had threatened to lose big.
“There was no conversation, it was a decision (Saban) made and he’s the boss. He made a great decision,” remarked Hurts, who maintained a smile a mile wide after coming close himself to securing a ring last year. “We got it done.”
It was indeed mission accomplished a season after falling a literal second short to Clemson last year in Tampa. While other programs could have suffered quite the hangover after coming so close to the ultimate prize, that was never the case with this year’s edition of the Tide. Instead, Saban preached to not waste that painful failure and to not just learn from it but get better.
Of course, it helps to have that special inkling to pull something that others in the position wouldn’t dare of making in the same spot. That is yet another reason why Saban remains the best in the game — and the best ever when looking beyond just this most recent moment. Two years ago in the first meeting with the Tigers out in Glendale, Arizona, that gut feeling manifested itself in the form of a surprise onside kick that played a pivotal role in the team winning the title in 2015. This year it wasn’t a special teams call but the confidence in the true freshman backup to get the job done in the end.
“I think they’re two different types of decisions but Coach had faith in the plays and in the players, that’s really it,” said safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who has two rings thanks to both calls. “(Tua) is a great quarterback and going against him in practice makes me better every day. I’ve seen how his decision making has matured and I’m really happy for him. He did a great job.”
Tagovailoa, who was named the game’s offensive player of the game after his three-touchdown and 166-yard performance, will go down in school history for his heroics but more than that he certainly cemented his coach’s legacy as the best to ever put on a headset. The victory in the early hours of Tuesday morning tied Saban with Bear Bryant for the most titles of a head coach in the poll era (six) and gives him an incredible five championships since arriving in Tuscaloosa 11 years ago.
“We certainly have an incredible history of coaches at the University of Alabama,” athletic director Greg Byrne said as he clutched the football from the game-winning play in his hands. “Coach Saban is certainly going to go down in the same frame as Coach Bryant and just like him, he’s one of the best coaches of all time.”
Given how the sport has grown and evolved — from social media to scholarship limits, to altered recruiting calendars or the fact that there’s more competition than ever — from the days where the houndstooth hat roamed the sidelines for the Tide though, Saban has far surpassed ol’ Bear no matter how you slice it. He’s not just the best to do it among his peers in modern college football but the best of all time with the hardware to prove it. From stops at Michigan State to LSU to now with the Tide, the process of winning big and winning small knows no equal now that the Tide reign supreme once again as national champions.
“The thing I like about college coaching is you have an opportunity to affect people,” said Saban, reflecting on the moment. “You have an opportunity to help players be more successful in life because they're involved in the program, whether it's personal development, academic support, graduating from school, learning lessons. The message to the team tonight after this game was I hope you take something from this game and the resiliency that you showed in this game and it helps you be more successful in life.
“So it's not just about winning the championship. I mean, I know that's what you all write about and what you talk about and all that. We like winning, and we hate losing. But there's more to it than that.”
Saban will never stop coaching, never stop trying to prefect his process and very likely never stop winning at this level. Over a seven-day span to kick off 2018, the greatest coach the sport has seen at this level not only secured his legacy as the greatest ever but did so by emphatically making sure it was one nobody will soon forget.
Stat of the Game
Alabama’s five titles in nine years accounts for the fastest stretch a program has won that many rings in FBS history. The previous best was five championships in 16 years, also by Alabama.
Tweet of the Week
Superlatives of the Championship Game
Best player: Da’Ron Payne (Alabama)
Honorary Les Miles goat of the game: Kirby Smart, Georgia
Quote of the game: “They said we weren’t supposed to be here and we just won it all! National Champs!” — Crimson Tide tailback Damien Harris
Play of the Game
I’m a voter in the FWAA/National Football Foundation Super 16 Poll and have released my ballot here every week. Here’s my ballot heading into the final game of the year:
I’m a voter in the FWAA/National Football Foundation Super 16 Poll and have released my ballot here every week. Here’s my final ballot of the 2017 season:
6. Ohio State
8. Penn State
12. Notre Dame
14. Michigan State
15. Oklahoma State
Best of the rest: NC. State, LSU, Washington, Washington State, Northwestern, Virginia Tech, FAU, Troy, Mississippi State
With no more games until August, here’s my early top 25 for the 2018 season prior to the NFL underclassmen declaration deadline:
6. Ohio State
7. Michigan State
10. Penn State
12. West Virginia
13. Virginia Tech
14. Mississippi State
17. Boise State
19. Notre Dame
20. Texas A&M
22. Kansas State
23. Florida State
— 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.