Saban, Alabama need to stop making excuses and give Clemson credit

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HOOVER, Ala. — Alabama‘s failure to give Clemson its proper credit at SEC media days on Wednesday was no accident. If you’ve followed Nick Saban’s time at Alabama and what happens in the aftermath of those few losses the Crimson Tide have had to endure, then you weren’t surprised when Saban questioned his former coaching staff’s commitment and linebacker Dylan Moses questioned his team’s preparation heading into the title game.

There were plenty of times in Hoover when Saban and players tipped their caps to the Tigers for beating them in the College Football Playoff National Championship, of course, but it was typically in the context of some larger excuse for why the Tide hadn’t played their best. No matter the fact that they lost by 28 points, Moses said he believed they were still the better team.

Asked point-blank whether Alabama’s best was better than Clemson’s, Moses said, “Yeah, I think so.”

“I have a lot of confidence in our team,” he added. “I have a lot of confidence in [quarterback Tua Tagovailoa], our receivers, our offensive line, defensive line. At our best, yeah.”

Agree with Moses or not, this is what Saban’s teams do. In the aftermath of defeat, they bottle it up, rationalize it and turn it into fuel. No matter what, it’s always about what they did — or didn’t do — rather than something as simple as losing to a better opponent.

Following the 2013 and 2014 seasons, which ended in defeats, the term “complacency” became a verbal tick around Tuscaloosa. Winning so much had ultimately led to their losing, if you could believe it. And this offseason has been a spin on that. Some players were supposedly too worried about the NFL and some coaches were supposedly too focused on their next jobs to truly give it their best against Clemson.

Call it what it is: excuses.

It’s not difficult to understand why, though. Creating internal problems to fix is a lot easier and ultimately more productive than admitting there was nothing you could have done. As a coach, you always want your team to believe that the outcome of games is ultimately in your control. If you don’t believe that if you prepare the right way and execute that things will turn out well, then what’s the point? What Saban does as well as any coach is think about the mental side of the game, and his job is to instill confidence, not create doubt.

But Saban’s capital “P” Process needs an adjustment in this respect. There needs to be a new chapter added, one dedicated to more humility.

Because unlike past losses, which Alabama could justify to itself as flukes or matters of happenstance, Clemson has proven time and time and time again that it’s a different caliber of opponent, one that if it’s not on equal footing, then slightly above. The latest in the teams’ epic four-game, playoff-only series was so convincing a defeat — the largest margin of Saban’s tenure — that it should have left no doubt who the better team was.

No one could have watched that game six months ago in California and reasonably believed it was Alabama. Clemson was better on both sides of the ball that night. It had the better quarterback, the better running back, the better offensive line, the better defense.

It had better coaches, too. They better prepared a true freshman quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, to have arguably the game of his life, and they had better prepared their defense, which baited the Heisman Trophy runner-up on the opposing sideline, Tagovailoa, into head-scratching throws.

Immediately after the game, Saban seemed to recognize this and actually was deferential. When he was asked what he attributed to his team’s mistakes and lack of execution, he first said, “You’ve got to give Clemson a little bit of credit. They have a really good team.” Saban then took the blame himself and said he thought players were “prepared well” and “they just got outperformed.”

It was only when the team’s buses got back to Tuscaloosa that the narrative started to shift. The focus became on the next season, and suddenly there was talk of players who might have been thinking about the NFL a little too much and coaches who weren’t all-in because they were thinking about their next opportunity.

Saban had it right the first time.

And even if players and coaches were distracted, so what? It’s his job as the head coach to avoid that.

No one is weeping for Saban that he recruits four- and five-stars with NFL potential, or that he hires high-caliber assistants with head-coaching aspirations. These are good problems to have, if you can even call them problems at all. Pointing them out and trying to give them added weight is as unnecessary as it frustrating.

Clemson deserves credit. The Tigers have beaten Alabama two out of the past four games, and even then the first loss was aided by an onside kick that a lesser coach or team might have said benefited from a lucky bounce.

The good news is that the time for looking backward is almost over. Camps in Tuscaloosa and Clemson will open soon and in about a month, the season will begin.

We’re on a collision course for Alabama-Clemson Part V and this only adds more fuel to their budding rivalry.

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