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Alabama Buried Oklahoma and Enraged Nick Saban to Earn a Date With History

In beating Oklahoma, the best team of Saban’s Crimson Tide tenure showed why it’s so terrifying. It also revealed its vulnerabilities. The final test comes in a familiar national championship: Alabama-Clemson IV.

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl - Alabama v Oklahoma
Tua Tagovailoa
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Saturday featured perhaps the greatest entry to date in the Nick Saban Disproportionate Anger Index—a graph wherein the x-axis represents how angry Saban is, and the y-axis represents how few reasons Alabama has given Saban to be mad. There was the time Saban ripped into a player up 34-0; the time Saban delivered a public “ass-chewing” to Lane Kiffin up 38-10; the time Saban was furious about having too slim a halftime lead against an FCS foe; and the time Saban said his team didn’t really beat Arkansas despite winning by 34 points because of how poorly it had played on defense. There are many, many more examples.

But the index peaked during this season’s College Football Playoff semifinal. After Saban’s top-seeded Crimson Tide raced out to a 28-0 lead against fourth-seeded Oklahoma that all but secured their spot in January’s national championship game, a string of procedure penalties prompted the coach to spike, and break, his headset:

The Orange Bowl was the first game all year where a loss would have eliminated Alabama from the national title race, and for most of the first half every single thing went according to plan. Oklahoma didn’t have 1 yard of total offense by the time Bama went ahead 21-0. By the time it went up 28-0, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa still hadn’t thrown an incomplete pass, and Sooners Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray had negative rushing yards. The Tide—who entered this weekend as two-touchdown favorites and won their first 13 games this season by an average of 33.1 points—were proving themselves to be better than even the gaudiest projections anticipated. Still, Saban stomped and steamed and yelled.

The 45-34 final score, though, makes Saban’s anger appear somewhat justified. After falling behind by 28, Oklahoma scored on every possession for the rest of the game, with the exception of when the Sooners ran out of time at the end of the first half. Murray racked up 417 yards of total offense (308 passing, 109 running) with three touchdowns, and Bama’s defensive line seemed genuinely gassed after trying to keep up with him for four quarters. Oklahoma kept it close enough that Tagovailoa (who went a brilliant 24-of-27 passing for 318 yards with four scores) was actually forced to play four full quarters for the first time in his college football career. Heck, the Sooners even covered the spread. The point of Saban’s yelling has long been to combat complacency, a core tenet of the coach’s famed process. This time, it didn’t totally seem to work.

For the majority of this season, Alabama has looked like one of the greatest teams in college football history. Tagovailoa has made the offense virtually unstoppable, and the defense has proved that it can stop anybody. This is the Alabama of everybody’s nightmares. The Tide graze perfection while feigning dissatisfaction and sucking everyone else’s souls. If you’re going to destroy everything in sight, at least be happy about it, you know?

As the season has wound down, however, Saban’s discontent with his team’s greatness has occasionally seemed justified. Bama’s closest call came in this month’s SEC championship game, in which it trailed late before backup quarterback Jalen Hurts engineered a stunning and emotional comeback. And that narrow result was arguably less worrisome than Saturday’s performance: Even if the Orange Bowl outcome was already well in hand, the Sooners marched the ball up and down the field with ease for about two and a half quarters.

Next week, Alabama will play a team that can beat it. Clemson’s semifinal win over Notre Dame was also decided in a single quarter; the Tigers scored three unanswered touchdowns in the second quarter of the Cotton Bowl to turn a 3-3 tie into an eventual 30-3 rout. The championship game will be the first matchup between 14-0 teams, and the third between the no. 1 and no. 2 seeds of the College Football Playoff field. Fans could be forgiven for having fatigue with this matchup: It’s the fourth time in four years that Alabama and Clemson will face off in the playoff, and the third meeting in the championship. But it’s hard to imagine a more compelling clash. These two unbeaten teams just proved themselves capable of dashing an apparent contender’s hopes in 20 devastating and awe-inspiring minutes.

This might sound dumb to say with just one playoff game remaining, but there are two potential ways this Alabama season can end. The Tide can be remembered as that team of our nightmares by defeating an opponent that has itself shown to be a world-beater. In doing so, Bama would cement its status as one of the greatest and most terrifying teams the sport has ever seen. Or it can make it clear why Saban yells even when everything seems almost perfect.