SANTA CLARA, Calif. — He handled the defeat better than his secondary handled the Clemson receivers. This was a momentous defeat for Nick Saban, his worst at Alabama, his second worst as a college football coach, and yet he dealt with it forthright, candidly, if somewhat bewildered by his team’s failings.
Bama was No. 1 in the nation, unbeaten as was Clemson, favored in this College Football Championship at Levi’s Stadium — which, because of the distant location from both schools and the apparent lack of interest in Northern California, seemed ill-placed. Until play began.
There were three touchdowns in the opening five minutes, and the near sellout crowd of 74,814 — more people in the stands than for the games of the 49ers, who play their home games here — were prepared for almost anything.
But they may not have been ready for Clemson routing the Crimson Tide, 44-16, Monday night.
What they got was both expected — superb play by Clemson freshman Trevor Lawrence, who during recruiting was described as the quarterback of a generation — and unexpected, meaning errors by Alabama.
“I’m very disappointed,” said Saban. “I don’t think one game necessarily defines a season. But we certainly didn’t play very well tonight. We had plenty of opportunities to stop on third down. We missed on that fake field goal. We got stopped at the goal line.”
So Alabama ended the season at 14-1, while Clemson became the first school ever to go 15-0 — and will be No. 1, as well as national champion, for the second time in four years.
Clemson won, or no less accurately Alabama lost, because J.T. Terrell picked off a Tua Tagovailoa pass in the opening two minutes and returned it for a touchdown; because in the opening minutes of the third period on fourth and six from the Clemson 22, Saban ordered a fake field goal and the runner got stuffed; because on a 4th and four, Tagovailoa kept the ball and could only gain three.
“Bad decisions on my part,” said Saban.
And great responses on Clemson’s part.
“We knew how good they were,” said Saban. “We knew all about Lawrence.”
Who came on so well so fast that Clemson coach Dabo Swinney installed him almost immediately as a starter and, completing 20 of 32 for 347 yards and three touchdowns Monday night, deservedly was named offensive player of the game.
“We knew their receiving corps was very talented,” said Saban. “We gave up big plays. Basically they had the ball the last quarter. We couldn’t get off the field on third down.
“The responsibility for us not playing well obviously starts with me. I thought the players were prepared well for this game. They just got outperformed. It wasn’t like we didn’t cover a guy, but when you don’t play well it’s a reflection of our coaches.”
And of the players.
“We just weren’t executing,” Saban conceded. “When we got close we couldn’t punch it in.”
Clemson punched it in, ran it in, passed it in and never trailed.
“I have a feeling,” said Saban, “that I didn’t do a very good job for our team, giving them the best opportunity to win. I always feel that way even when we win. There are things we could have done better.”
In the national championship, the most important of those things was to win the game, which Nick Saban and Alabama were unable to do.