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ALABAMA CONTINUES TO EARN TRUST — EMPHASIS ON “EARN”

Photo of Nick Saban and Alabama players.

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 08: Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban looks on during the College Football Playoff National Championship Game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Georgia Bulldogs on January 8, 2018 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, GA. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire)

The story of Alabama Crimson Tide football this decade is a story of soaring achievements, relentless excellence, crushing opponents' hopes, and elevating The Hound, Nick Saban, to a place higher than his storied predecessor, The Bear, Paul W. Bryant. The Alabama story this decade has spawned terms such as Death Star, monster, machine, and juggernaut. If the program is named the Crimson Tide, this decade has been a tsunami of quality, physicality, strength and determination to be the best.

Alabama and Saban have made Urban Meyer -- either at Florida or Ohio State -- look pedestrian by comparison. Meyer was once felt to be on par with Saban as a coach, but the past three seasons have firmly shattered that notion to the extent that Meyer needs a seven-year run akin to what Saban has just delivered in order to invite a new conversation.

There is no conversation to be had right now. Saban has ended it. There is him and then everyone else. He won the two-out-of-three rubber match against Dabo Swinney, convincingly. He beat yet another former assistant, Kirby Smart. He also did something which hasn't been done before: He acted surprised that he won a national title.

Go back and watch his on-field interview with Tom Rinaldi right after Tua Tagovailoa threw the 2nd-and-27 dart which turned a highly complicated situation into a euphoric celebration. Keep this in mind: Of all the national titles he has won -- including the first one at LSU in 2003 -- Saban has never won a national title in such an abrupt manner.

Alabama sweated against Texas in 2010 but reasserted control down the stretch. The final minutes awaited a coronation; the act of survival had come earlier in the fourth quarter.

The 2012 BCS National Championship Game against LSU was a romp, as was the 2013 game against Notre Dame.

The 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship Game against Clemson was over when Alabama scored a touchdown for a 45-33 lead with just over a minute left. Deshaun Watson scored one more touchdown to make the score cosmetically close, but Alabama essentially ended the game just before the finish line.

This? This crazy awful-sack-and-then-winning-pass sequence against Georgia in Atlanta? This was something altogether new for Saban. His exuberance -- getting past the always-in-control shell of emotions he usually presents to the world -- was the giveaway.

This was different. This was special. Saban knew it, too.

This game wasn't the curb-stomping which delivered Alabama its previous national titles, leaving Brent Musburger to search for things to talk about on the air such as Katherine Webb (now Webb-McCarron). This was not a coronation laden with style points and merciless punishment of a woeful and clearly inferior opponent.

Alabama Crimson Tide National Champs

This was also not a classic firefight between the best of the Alabama colossus and Deshaun Watson, which had played out in two straight Januaries before giving way to something different this January.

This game against Georgia -- and this particular journey to a national title in Tuscaloosa -- belonged in a separate realm.

For one thing, in the first two and a half quarters, Georgia was the better team. No one would reasonably dispute the claim. Alabama should have had a 7-0 lead -- Jalen Hurts missed a wide-open pass in the red zone in the first quarter -- but after that mistake and the missed field goal which followed it, Georgia controlled the game. Hurts was a disaster, a point which requires no elaboration. The defense allowed Georgia to run for a first down on 3rd and 20 and in other long down-and-distance situations. Despite the overwhelming performance against Clemson in the Sugar Bowl, Alabama's defense -- for whatever reason -- was not particularly sharp against Georgia. Sony Michel looked like the best player on the field, and Jake Fromm -- though not in Deshaun Watson's league -- still made enough quality throws on downfield balls to take the Dawgs to a 20-7 lead, with possession following a Tagovailoa interception near midfield.

When Georgia had the ball up 13, needing just 20 yards to get into range for a long Rodrigo Blankenship field goal, the squeeze on the Tide was noticeable. The limited options for the team were felt by everyone in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The doors closing on a national title -- which would have meant just one national championship in the past five years (the 2015 team) -- were impossible to miss.

From that very dire position, Alabama found a way. Moreover, it found a way based on freshmen, and on players who had not typically carried the workload during the season.

Yes, Tagovailoa looked 10 times the quarterback Hurts was, even when accounting for his own mistakes (the interception he threw) and limitations (in evidence on the 17-yard sack he took in overtime). He probably should have played a lot more during the season. Yet, there was no time for anyone on the Alabama sideline to lament that reality. Tagovailoa finally had his name called, and the only task in front of him was to rescue this situation against a Kirby Smart-Mel Tucker defense which allowed just one offensive touchdown to Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma in 30 second-half minutes and two overtime possessions.

Tagovailoa was up to the task, so much so that if Alabama's kicking game had done its job, the Tide wouldn't have needed a 42-yard pass to win the game in the extra period. This game would have been done and dusted in regulation time.

The recipient of the game's winning pass was not Calvin Ridley. Alabama struggled to find a consistent, dynamic No. 2 pass-catching threat in its vertical game all season long. Checkdowns to running backs were always there, but a non-Ridley option down the field (think of what O.J. Howard was in the 2016 national title game win over Clemson)? It had not regularly been there... but it was there when Alabama needed it most.

Freshmen earned Nick Saban's trust precisely when the outlook was bleak for Alabama. Those freshmen rewarded Saban's trust with the national title which confirms The Hound's place in history, over and above The Bear.

This is a perfectly reasonable point at which to end the story. It offers poetry, symmetry and poignancy. Seeing "big, bad Bama" turn into a cuddly, feel-good story fueled by the innocence of youth -- and embodied by Hurts' total embrace and celebration of Tagovailoa, his younger teammate, in his moment of triumph -- is the kind of cinematic plot twist we should all be able to respect and admire.

(To be clear, we should.)

Yet, there is something more to be said for Alabama football at the end of the 2017 season. It completes the circle first drawn in that 2011 season which elicits such obvious comparisons to this one.

The 2011 season, like 2017, featured an Alabama team failing to win the SEC West but then lifting the national championship trophy at the end of the journey. Alabama won that season's national title more convincingly than this 2017 team did, but that Alabama team got a do-over against LSU. In the first game against the Bayou Bengals, Alabama struggled, much as it did in this game against Georgia. The kicking game was a mess. The offense did not own a full sense of confidence. Another team (LSU then, Auburn this year) was clearly the deserving SEC West champion.

What was different from the 2011 team, though, is that the 2017 team had spent the whole season -- since the Florida State opener -- dealing with high-impact injuries and the thin depth chart which flowed from them. This team had been operating at a greater deficit compared to what the 2011 team went through. The strongest case Alabama had in the College Football Playoff selection process was simply this: "Give us a month to heal, and everything about our identity and our history shows that we will make the committee look good. We will make the most of a chance if granted one in a two-team battle with Ohio State for that fourth and final playoff seed."

This is where the difference between the Bowl Championship Series and the playoff comes into play.

It is worth underscoring the point that in 2011, Alabama SHOULD have been given the chance to play for the national title... against Oklahoma State, and then being given a rematch against LSU. It's not as though Bama was an unworthy team in 2011. The point of emphasis was that both the Tide and Oklahoma State deserved to show which team was better, and to then earn a path to a date with LSU. The problem was the system didn't have four teams back then. Alabama was in a sense a victim of the public debate, although Oklahoma State was more clearly the victim of the system itself. In 2017, the presence of four teams allowed for a game -- Georgia-Oklahoma -- which is exactly what Alabama-Oklahoma State would have been six years ago. In many ways, 2017 gave us the system and process the 2011 season always begged for.

Alabama being given a chance to earn its way to a national title with high-end wins over Clemson and Georgia represented a way to simultaneously validate the program in the present tense and reduce lingering bitterness from 2011. This time, Alabama had to beat the No. 1 team in the country, the defending national champion, to get back to the national title game. There was no free pass. This time, Alabama beat out a team (Ohio State) with a far stronger national reputation compared to Oklahoma State in 2011. The prestige of the program hung in the balance to an extent not witnessed in 2011.

Would Alabama -- given the benefit of the doubt again -- make twice the climb it made in 2011, winning two January games and not just one?

Yes.

Freshmen earned Nick Saban's trust in a time of doubt and uncertainty, but that was just part of the story. Alabama re-earned college football's trust, despite the firestorm of controversy which greeted the Selection Sunday elevation over Ohio State on December 3.

This imperfect team with the imperfect quarterback situation could have faltered -- it certainly came close against Georgia -- thereby leading people throughout the college football community to freshly question Alabama football in ways we haven't fully seen or heard this decade. Instead, the Tide -- for all their limitations -- pulled through under pressure with a level of dramatic flair unmatched by previous Alabama champions.

This was not the championship team which crushed souls and flattened competitors' hopes at the start of the battle. This was the team which traveled the hardest road yet still prevailed and still answered every question thrown its way.

No, Alabama wasn't a plucky underdog, but every great dynastic run usually has one champion which won in an improbable manner.

This is that team. The paradox: By winning so improbably, it reaffirmed the sense of trust and expectation fans and foes alike have given to Alabama football since this glorious decade began.

Now the story of Alabama football this decade is complete.

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