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College football

Alabama already looking toward its next national title run

For the sixth time at Alabama, coach Nick Saban was called on to speak after his team won a national championship.
For the sixth time at Alabama, coach Nick Saban was called on to speak after his team won a national championship.Kevin C. Cox/Getty

Nick Saban wasn’t ready to contemplate his legacy moments after capturing a record seventh national championship “because you’re always looking forward.”

It was time to start chasing No. 8, after all.

The Crimson Tide capped off a 13-0 season with a 52-24 win over Ohio State Monday night in the national championship game at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla.

“The to-do list started after the game last night,” the 69-year-old coach, who is showing no signs of slowing down, said at a Tuesday morning news conference.

A block party began right after the game as well, with Tide fans flooding the streets of Tuscaloosa near the campus despite officials warning against large gatherings during the pandemic that could lead to outbreaks.

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In South Florida, the championship celebration for Saban didn’t last very long. They never do.

The work started by meeting “right after the game” with players considering leaving early to enter the NFL Draft, along with seniors who are eligible to return because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Next up on his to-do list is polishing off another loaded recruiting class and replacing offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who is taking over at Texas. Saban declined to give any timetable for making that hire.

None of this is new for Saban, known for his singular focus and ability to annually replace elite talent on both the roster and his coaching staff. Saban broke a tie with Alabama predecessor Paul “Bear” Bryant for the most national titles by a major college coach, including one he captured at LSU and six over the past dozen years in Tuscaloosa.

"It’s an ongoing process, building a team," Saban said. “I don’t think you can fall asleep at the switch for a minute if you want to try to do it the right way for your players and your program.”

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Nick Saban waves to the fans as the University of Alabama football team arrives home Tuesday.
Nick Saban waves to the fans as the University of Alabama football team arrives home Tuesday.Vasha Hunt/Associated Press

But Saban said this was one of his best teams, if not the best. Facing a regular-season schedule of all Southeastern Conference opponents because of the pandemic, Alabama breezed into the league title game having scarcely been challenged.

Only Florida in the SEC championship game came closer than 15 points. Neither semifinal opponent Notre Dame (31-14) nor the Buckeyes mustered much of a challenge.

Quarterback Mac Jones, a Heisman Trophy finalist who is exploring entering the NFL, left no doubt where he believes this team belongs historically: At the top.

“I think we’re the best team to ever play,” Jones said. “There’s no team that will ever play an SEC schedule like that.”

The 2009 Alabama team that went 14-0 is Saban's only other undefeated group.

DeVonta Smith, the Heisman Trophy winner, had 12 catches for 215 yards and three touchdowns, all in the first half. Smith hardly played in the second half, leaving with an injury. He returned to the sideline in the fourth quarter with his right hand wrapped to the wrist, two fingers taped together, and wearing a Heisman mask.

“Heaven knows what he would have done if he played the whole game,” Saban said.

Quarterback Mac Jones, who finished third in the Heisman voting, was 36 for 45 for a CFP championship-record 464 yards and five touchdowns. In one of maybe the most overlooked seasons a quarterback has ever played, Jones set a single-season record for passer efficiency rating at 203.

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Najee Harris, who was fifth in the Heisman race, had 158 yards from scrimmage on 29 touches, scoring three times to give him an SEC record 30 touchdowns this season.

Ohio State (7-1) just couldn’t keep up. Justin Fields passed for 194 yards and a touchdown. Whether Fields was 100 percent after taking a brutal hit to the side during his brilliant semifinal performance against Clemson was hard to know for sure.

“I was able to be out there,” was all the junior quarterback would say.

On the Buckeyes’ first drive, they lost star running back Trey Sermon to an injury, they sputtered throughout.

“I think there’s a feeling of, if you don’t score you’re going to get behind and then the pressure mounts,” Buckeyes coach Ryan Day said of facing the Tide’s prolific offense.

Ryan Day and the Buckeyes had no clue when it came to slowing the Alabama offense.
Ryan Day and the Buckeyes had no clue when it came to slowing the Alabama offense.Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

Alabama’s seniors, like Smith and Harris, who returned this season hoping to claim a title and improve their draft stock, get to finish on top.

“I came back to get a degree and to win a national championship,” Smith said. “That’s why that meant so much to me, why I was just so happy about it. Two main boxes that I wanted to check off, I checked off.”

Back in Tuscaloosa, thousands of fans partied in the street near campus, ignoring pleas for safety at the height of the coronavirus pandemic in a celebration.

Many of the fans who were screaming and cheering as they pressed against each other in the street didn’t wear face masks. Dr. Scott Harris, the head of the Alabama Department of Public Health, said he expected more cases of COVID-19 to result from the street party.

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“It’s disappointing to see people not paying attention to the guidance that we try to give to keep them safe. I was excited as anybody and wanted to celebrate also, but right now is not a time to be out in large groups of people close together when you are not masked,” he said.

Fourteen people were arrested on charges including public intoxication, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, officials said at a news conference where Mayor Walt Maddox said the crowd was “larger than any celebration that we’ve seen in recent memory.”