Alabama submits legacy with Ohio State win: Nick Saban’s ‘ultimate team’

Alabama’s offense wasn’t at full strength in the final minutes of Monday’s College Football Playoff championship game.

Receiver DeVonta Smith left the game early in the third quarter with a dislocated finger. A still-recovering Jaylen Waddle was hindered in limited action. Quarterback Mac Jones hobbled off one last time after getting tackled awkwardly earlier in the game. And center Landon Dickerson, who tore his ACL in the SEC championship, played two symbolic snaps in a victory kneel formation.

That’s how arguably the greatest offense in college football history concluded its 2020 season: limping across the finish line.

Victorious, of course.

“A lot of guys were not at absolutely 100 percent and we were beat up,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said after the game. “They showed a lot of guts and a lot of grit out there in terms of the way they competed and the way they performed.”

No. 1 Alabama (13-0) routed No. 3 Ohio State (7-1) in Monday’s meeting, 52-24. The Crimson Tide didn’t just win a sixth national championship under Saban: They set a new standard for others to follow with an offensive masterpiece that netted a CFP title game-record 621 total yards.

“It was a fantastic offensive performance by Mac and Smitty,” Saban said. “The whole group. The offensive line has done a great job all year long. So, you really can’t say enough or put into words how proud I am of this group this team, because they are the ultimate team.”

Where to begin? Start with Smith, the Heisman Trophy winner and Sporting News’ 2020 Player of the Year. He finished with 12 catches for 215 yards and three touchdowns in a single half. Smith shredded Ohio State’s defense with four catches of 20 yards or more and those three scores, the last from 42 yards out just before halftime.

Smith left with a hand injury on the opening drive of the third quarter and did not return. Joked Saban of his star player’s injury: “I told Smitty after the game, ‘You’re the only player I know who missed a whole half because of your finger.” Not that it mattered. There’s a reason Smith opened his postgame news conference by saying, “Teamwork make the dream work.”

When Justin Fields and Ohio State trimmed the lead to 38-24 with 6:45 left in the third quarter, Jones responded with a touchdown drive that pushed the lead back to three touchdowns. The Tide signal-caller — winner of the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm and Davey O’Brien awards — completed 36 of 45 passes with a CFP championship-record 464 yards and five touchdowns. That matched the performance of LSU’s Joe Burrow in last year’s championship game.

Doak Walker Award winner Najee Harris added 79 rushing yards, 79 receiving yards and three total touchdowns behind his Joe Moore Award-winning offensive line, anchored by Outland Trophy winner Alex Leatherwood. Waddle, who hadn’t played since Oct. 24, converted a key third down in the Crimson Tide’s opening touchdown drive. The next wave of playmakers, including John Metchie III and Slade Bolden, put the game away in the second half.

This was all done with the help of the continued masterful play-calling of Steve Sarkisian. The Broyles Award winner remained focused after accepting the head coaching job at Texas. The Buckeyes tried a 4-4 alignment on defense in the first half, and he exploited it repeatedly.

“I think we’re the best team to ever play,” Jones said. “There is no team that will ever play a SEC schedule like that again, but at the same time we’re just so happy to win this game. … There was not a lot of pressure. We just wanted to go and play the game we’ve been playing since we were 5 years old. We did that really well.”

Said Smith: “It was just the love for this team. Everybody wants to do what they can. It’s having the young guys there just ready if anything happens and their dedication that they have for each other. It’s the love we have for this team.”

This performance delivered Saban his seventh national title, pushing him past Paul “Bear” Bryant for most all time. It wasn’t his first undefeated championship, but it might have been the most impressive. This wasn’t the methodical ground-and-pound approach that produced BCS titles against Texas (2009), LSU (2011) or Notre Dame (2012). But neither was it similar to the CFP nail-biters against Clemson (2015) or Georgia (2017).

This was an arena football-like destruction that one-upped what SEC rival LSU did to Clemson in last year’s championship game. We thought we’d never see an offense like the Tigers had with Burrow last season — the one that beat Alabama 46-41 in the last “Game of the Century.”

But Alabama built the offense of the century in a season impacted by the pandemic of the century. The Crimson Tide averaged 48.5 points per game, an SEC record. They averaged that against an 11-game SEC schedule, ACC runner-up Notre Dame and the Big Ten champion, Sugar Bowl-winning Buckeyes.

Those star players played through it one last time. NFL stars questioned whether Waddle should be on the field in the first place. Smith spent most of the second half in the medical tent and in the locker room before joining his teammates. Jones exited to a standing ovation with 3:31 remaining.

But it was the image of Dickerson lifting Saban in the postgame celebration that will leave the lasting image.

Jones revealed after the game that his Rimington-winning center would text him at 7 a.m. every morning, saying he would play in the championship game.

“Most people can’t even walk with the time period where he’s at,” Jones said. “He worked his butt off to get back on the field.”

All of those leaders wanted to be on the field for that moment. In doing so, they submitted an emphatic argument as the best offense — and team — Saban has ever coached.

“I think,” Saban said, “there is quite a bit to write about when it comes to the legacy of the team.”

That is the ultimate team personified.

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