Alabama's Nick Saban: I'll 'never get over' last-second loss to Clemson
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It's not in Nick Saban's nature to dwell on anything for very long, but even the ultimate live-in-the-moment coach has had a difficult time shaking Alabama's last-second 35-31 loss to Clemson in this year's College Football Playoff National Championship.
"I'll never get over it because you never do with those kind of losses," Saban told ESPN this week. "I never got over the returned field goal at Auburn. I never got over playing poorly against Ohio State and losing that game late. And then in this game, we didn't play very well, and Clemson did when they had to. That's what eats at you. We didn't play that great against Washington, either (in a 24-7 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl win) in the semifinal.
"Something happened to our team from the SEC championship game to the playoff. You look at the Clemson game, and our really good players didn't play very well. But Clemson was a damn good team. They were the best team we played against with the best quarterback, and where we needed to play well, we didn't."
It was Alabama's first loss after 26 straight wins, and the Crimson Tide were vying for what would have been their fifth national championship in the past eight years. Never one to mince words, Saban said the blame for Alabama not playing its best football in the playoff falls squarely on him.
"If you had asked me if that team makes it to the championship game in September, I would have said probably not because of the quarterback (Jalen Hurts) being a true freshman," Saban said. "But after we got there, I felt like if we had played to our strengths as a team, we would win. But we didn't play to our strengths, and that's my fault. That's the part that's hard to get over.
"I didn't do a good job, whether it was keeping the team focused, making sure the team took the ownership they needed to take in those games ... whatever. I don't know what it was. But I do know it's on me, and we'll go on and all learn from it."
As he did after the game in January, Saban downplayed the impact of changing offensive coordinators the week of the championship game. Steve Sarkisian, who had been an offensive analyst all season for the Tide, stepped in to call plays for Lane Kiffin after Kiffin was named the Florida Atlantic head coach. Kiffin stayed on as Alabama's offensive coordinator through the Washington game, but Saban felt like it was too cumbersome all the way around for Kiffin to juggle his FAU head coaching duties and Alabama offensive coordinator duties.
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"We scored more points in that game against a better defense than we did the first playoff game," Saban said. "We really scored 17 against Washington (not counting a defensive touchdown). At the end of the day, we played 80 plays of defense and gave up 14 points, and Clemson scored three times in the fourth quarter. So, what's that have to do with the offensive coordinator? Now, if we had kept the ball more on offense, maybe there wouldn't have been the pressure on the defense in the end or whatever, but we just didn't do the things we needed to do to win that game.
"Look, having to make the change probably wasn't helpful, but it was better than the alternative and that wasn't my fault. It's unfortunate, but it is what it is."
Alabama will conclude spring practice Saturday with its annual A-Day spring game. Saban said the team has made a lot of progress considering some of its personnel losses, but also warned, "We've got a long way to go."
Notably, Alabama lost 74.5 tackles for loss off the 2016 defense, and the Crimson Tide also scored a school-record 11 defensive touchdowns last season. Five of the players scoring those touchdowns are also gone.
"Two years in a row, we've lost a lot of guys," Saban said. "We just had a lot of depth on defense and it didn't show up, and we were still really good last year. We've got a lot of young guys that can make a contribution to the team, which we need from a depth standpoint."
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