By Tommy Ford
What is your favorite Crimson Tide national championship team?
The 1961 squad (Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s first natty), which gave up only 25 points the entire season?
The 1973 team, when the run-oriented wishbone offense sprouted wings and set many school passing records?
The undefeated 1979 team, which closed for Coach Bryant up to that point the most successful decade in Alabama football history?
The defensive-minded 1992 squad, which steamrolled the 8-point favorite Miami Hurricanes in the Sugar Bowl?
Oh, and then there are the Nick Saban-led teams. How about his 2009 (“Remember the Rose Bowl, we’ll win then”), 2011 (an LSU re-do), 2012 (no Irish luck), 2015 (a Clemson classic), or 2017 (2nd & 26) squads? Any of those come to mind as your favorite?
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I present to you the 2020 Alabama team. Might this one be your favorite? Might this one be the best one of all?
My new book, HISTORY MADE, doesn’t take sides or claim the 2020 version was the best of all the championship squads. But I believe it’s safe to say it is many Alabama’s fans’ favorite squad.
In the words to follow are excerpts from HISTORY MADE, showing the monumental tasks this Tide team had to conquer, including COVID-19 and all its uncertainty, an All-SEC schedule, and challenges from two of college football’s blueblood programs – Notre Dame and Ohio State.
Prior to the season, when it was believed that many Power-Five teams would sit out the season, the pundits said that regardless of which team would be crowned national champions at year’s end, there would be an asterisk by its name, indicating a less-than-deserving accomplishment. As it turned out, these Power-Fives ended up playing, yet the “asterisk” crowd kept crowing.
My contention – and the theme throughout HISTORY MADE – is that yes, an asterisk does indeed need to go beside Alabama’s name in the record books, but for reasons totally opposite of the usual meaning.
I hope you enjoy reliving these memories.
(Note: All HISTORY MADE excerpts are in italics.)
BRING ON THE ASTERISK
Asterisk – the character * thought of as being appended to something (such as an athletic accomplishment included in a record book) typically in order to indicate that there is a limiting fact or consideration which makes that thing less important or impressive than it would otherwise be…
In the case of the 2020 Alabama Crimson Tide football team, Mr. Merriam and Mr. Webster never had it so wrong.
Yes, an asterisk can be attached to the Alabama Crimson Tide’s 2020 football national championship, but in ways different than anyone had ever imagined.
If a team – just as spring football practice was getting started – had to exit campus and not come back for 12 weeks, and successfully overcome such a monumental shift in their normal schedule, they deserve an asterisk.
If a player had to reside in what was basically a bubble, away from family and friends for months, and came out of it emotionally unharmed, he deserves an asterisk.
If a player had to go through COVID-19 testing at least three times a week (and daily during the season) for at least seven months, he deserves an asterisk.
If a player had to walk on eggshells every day, not knowing if his next COVID-19 test might quarantine him for 10-14 days (resulting in missed practices and games), he deserves an asterisk.
If a player had to go home during the bye weekend and constantly wonder, as head coach Nick Saban said, “where Uncle Tommy has been,” he deserves an asterisk.
If a player had to wear a mask and social distance while in weight training, position meetings, team meetings, the dining hall, their living quarters and the daily classrooms, he deserves an asterisk.
If a team that usually relished on the roars of a packed stadium, but instead had to become accustomed to 20 percent capacity and piped-in crowd noise, they deserve an asterisk.
If a team, under numerous COVID-19 protocols, became the first in Southeastern Conference history to win 10 regular season conference games, they deserve an asterisk.
If a team, under multiple COVID-19 restrictions, defeated Florida for the SEC championship, Notre Dame in the first round of the College Football Playoff, and Ohio State for the national championship, they deserve an asterisk.
If a team, under varied COVID-19 constraints, became one of the most decorated squads in college football history and, without question, one of the greatest teams in college football history, they deserve an asterisk.
Bring on the *. And put it in the record books right by “Alabama” as the 2020 national football champions.
For 305 days – from March 13, 2020, when spring practice was canceled, to Jan. 11, 2021, when confetti reigned down upon the school’s 18th national championship squad – the Crimson Tide football program rode a roller coaster of ups and downs, twists and turns, and numerous harrowing moments. After hopping on, the Alabama players, coaches and staff didn’t know if it would make it out of the gate, grind to a slow halt halfway through, or make it to the finish line. They lived, as did the entire country, one day at a time.
There you have it. In mid-summer, just 10 or so weeks before the first game was to be played, there was serious talk of canceling the entire season. Finally, thanks to the leadership of Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey and several other conference commissioners, the decision was made to play. Even then, the season would go along ever so precariously. From week to week, collective breaths were held across the country.
Within the Tide football program, many heroes emerged throughout the season. Jeff Allen, associate athletics director for sports medicine and head football trainer, led the charge.
“Coach Saban did a really good job when we started fall camp in educating all our guys,” Allen said. “We did an education session when they got back for workouts in June, and we did another huge one before they started fall camp. That’s when we really strategically hit on everything we needed them to do to get through the season. Coach took the approach – and I thought it was a great message – that COVID was going to be our biggest opponent for the season. We had to look at COVID like we would one of our opponents.
“So, when I did my education session for them, I presented it in a game plan format. Just like when we were about to play, say, Tennessee, the coaches would get up there and give us a game plan and tell us what Tennessee was going to do on offense, what they’re going to do on defense, what are their strengths, what are their weaknesses, how we’re going to attack it, things like that.
“Rather than getting up there and just saying ‘Wash your hands, wear your masks,’ I gave them a game plan, something they could relate to,” Allen continued. “I’d say, ‘What are the strengths of COVID? How can you beat COVID?’
“My fear was that they were going to relax and not take it serious. And it would have beaten us. The times that we’ve lost games, it’s because we didn’t respect our opponent nor prepare for them like we should have. I told them, ‘You must respect this opponent. You can’t fear COVID, but you must respect it.’ I think it resonated with them.”
A SEASON TO REMEMBER
Can any Alabama fan imagine the 2020 season not taking place? Not witnessing this Tide squad roll through the schedule undefeated? Not being amazed by offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian’s play-calling magic? Not watching the finest offensive line in the nation relentlessly pound away? Not loving a 17-point victory over No. 3 Georgia? Not relishing in revenge blowouts against LSU and Auburn (the only blemishes from the 2019 season)? Not cherishing convincing wins over bluebloods Notre Dame and Ohio State? Not celebrating the greatest Alabama offense in program history (and, many believe, in college football history)? Not gleaming with pride to see Coach Saban become college football’s all-time titles king? Not witnessing DeVonta Smith run away with the Heisman Trophy (with Mac Jones and Najee Harris close behind)? Not watching with pride as Tiders captured the Walter Camp (Smith), Outland (Alex Leatherwood), Rimington (Landon Dickerson), Davey O’Brien (Jones), Unitas (Jones), Manning (Jones), Doak Walker (Harris), Joe Moore (offensive line), Patrick Mannelly (Fletcher), Broyles (Sarkisian), and Bryant (Saban) awards? Not appreciating the hard work and dedication by the team’s seven American Football Coaches Association All-Americans (Dickerson, Harris, Jones, Leatherwood, Dylan Moses, Smith, and Patrick Surtain II)?
The thought of the 2020 season not happening is, well, unthinkable. And because it did happen, this squad’s place in college football history is forever secure.
Yes, the 2020 season happened, but it was unlike any other. Ever. Attending home games at Bryant-Denny Stadium was, well, surreal, with only 20,000 or so fans being allowed to enter.
The fans’ in-game experience was unlike anything they’d ever seen nor felt. Crowd noise, usually a significant part of the Bryant-Denny aura, was piped in artificially. The Million Dollar Band (reduced to about a fourth of its regular size), Crimsonettes and cheerleaders performed only from the stands. A pre-recorded version of the band’s legendary pregame show, including the iconic “Tusk” exit, was shown on the video boards. To energize the fans just prior to the Crimson Tide team taking the field, video messages from Alabama All-Americans Jonathan Allen and Derrick Henry were played. During the game, fan-submitted photos of doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers – the true heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic – were prominently displayed, along with live shots of fans cheering from their homes during selected timeouts.
Despite all the changes affecting the pregame and in-game experiences, Tide fans saw this as a day of celebration and rejoicing, a slice of heaven that had been a long time coming. After months of speculation over whether there would even be a season, the verdict was in: Crimson Tide football was back.
Except for closer-than-expected tussles with Ole Miss and Florida, Alabama captured the SEC championship with relative ease. Veterans Mac Jones, DeVonta Smith, Najee Harris, Landon Dickerson, Alex Leatherwood, Patrick Surtain, and – until he was injured – Jaylen Waddle shone brightly.
NO IRISH LUCK THIS TIME
In a game that so exemplified the crazy 2020 season, for the College Football Playoff semifinal game Alabama headed to Arlington, Texas – annual site of the Cotton Bowl – to play in the Rose Bowl. The final score – Alabama 31, Notre Dame 14 – was not as close as the final score indicated.
Shortly following the College Football Playoff selection committee’s Dec. 20 announcement that No. 1 Alabama – fresh off a roller coaster victory over the Florida Gators in the SEC Championship game – would face No. 4 Notre Dame in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 2021, the Fighting Irish spin machine began whirring.
In an interview with ESPN, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly – obviously still stinging from the 42-14 beatdown by the Tide eight years earlier – exuded confidence in his 2020 Irish squad.
“We understand that if we don’t play to our standard, we can be beaten down pretty bad,” Kelly said in an interview with ESPN. “Our guys recognize what they’ll need to do relative to the mental preparation of playing a great football team in Alabama.
“Now, we’re much better prepared than we were in 2012 in terms of the physicality on both lines. Their offensive line when we played them in ’12 just dominated one of the top defenses – we were No. 2 or 3 in the country defensively, one of the top rush defenses in the country – and we got manhandled. What was clear, and you didn’t even have to be somebody that knew anything about football, was the disparity in the offensive and defensive lines.
“(For the upcoming game) I think we have the ability to move the football, certainly. Those things are going to have to be in play.”
Coach Kelly, who this week was named the new head coach at LSU, was never so misguided about his Irish. Alabama started fast and, by design, ended slow. Slow for the Tide, at least.
Not since the Missouri game in late September had the Tide scored only in the 30s, but that was of little concern to the Alabama coaching staff. Conservative play-calling in the second half went according to plan, according to Tide offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.
“We knew Notre Dame had a very good defense, especially up front,” said Sarkisian, who the next day was named head coach at Texas. “They were sound in the back end; they had a good scheme. We knew it would be a hard-fought, physical game.
“As the game got going, and we kinda jumped out and were moving the ball, and our defense was playing well, it was really going to be about possessions. So, in a little bit of a shift philosophically – and I thought that’s one of the beauties of Coach Saban and our players understanding it – we didn’t play our usual game to try to score 50 points, especially in the second half. Since they weren’t explosive offensively, the goal was to minimize their possessions, and if they were going to take that much time to drive the ball, we tried to do whatever we needed to do to get into the national championship game.
“We played a really good first half and then scored early in the third quarter. From then on it was, like, let’s possess the ball, let’s try to minimize their possessions, and let’s get ourselves to Miami.”
And to Miami they would go.
THE BUCK(EYES) STOPPED HERE
Hovering somewhere high above Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., on Monday evening, Jan. 11, 2021, an asterisk lurked, waiting to settle upon a new college football champion.
Through a nightmarish summer and fall of constant COVID-19 testing, mask wearing, social distancing, schedule changes and the day-to-day uncertainty of not knowing if one player, or a couple of players, or an entire position group, or half a team might be quarantined and kept from playing a football game, only two squads remained on the final day: No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 Ohio State.
After a long, arduous season, it was time to bring to a halt what had been one of the most difficult college football seasons ever played. Difficult for the players, who had endured a myriad of COVID-19 protocols, while at the same time had practiced, played games, and kept up their studies in an environment never before experienced. Difficult for the fans, most of whom had rarely missed a game, but due to stadium capacity limitations had not been allowed to cheer their team in person. Difficult for the schools, whose athletic departments had taken major financial hits in the tens of millions of dollars. Difficult for the college town restaurants, hotels, and other businesses that had always relied so much on college football for their livelihood.
For the Crimson Tide and Buckeyes on this night, their final exam awaited. One would pass, and the other would fail. How each team had prepared and weathered the COVID-19 storms would be a main factor in how they would perform.
We know which team passed the final exam, as the Crimson Tide crushed the Buckeyes, 52-24. In just the first half, DeVonta Smith – fresh off winning the Heisman Trophy – hauled in 12 catches for 215 yards and three touchdowns. Unfortunately, early in the second half Smith dislocated his finger on an awkward hit and did not return. “Heaven knows what he (Smith) would have done if he played the whole game,” Coach Saban said in his post-game remarks.
Coach Sarkisian, in his final game as offensive coordinator, conducted the Tide offense like a seasoned maestro. His play-calling was near perfect, and having DeVonta Smith (Heisman winner), Mac Jones (third in Heisman balloting), and Najee Harris (fifth in Heisman balloting) in his corner sure didn’t hurt.
“We thought that using Najee out of the backfield was a pretty good matchup for us,” said offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. “He had two good years of doing that for us.
“A lot of the strategy, too, was that Ohio State was playing a lot of man-to-man coverage, and it’s like playing in the park. When you’re playing man-to-man, and you start running in different directions, it’s harder to chase a guy – around the light pole, around the tree, around the car. We just felt like creating as much movement as possible would make it harder for them to hang with our guys, the better chances we had. As it started to work, we just kinda stuck with it.”
Stick with it they did, as Alabama rolled to its 18th national championship. Jeff Allen, the unsung hero of the season, recalls a poignant moment following the game, long after the stadium cleared and the confetti was vacuumed away.
Allen’s customary SUV ride back to the hotel after the game with Saban, Alabama state trooper Jessie Peoples, and Josh Maxson, assistant athletics director for communications, was a time for reflection.
“I’ll always stay and ride back with Coach back to the airport or in the case of a bowl game, to the hotel,” Allen said. “So, after the Ohio State game, it was really neat, because Coach is usually so laser-focused. He’s already moved on from the game we’ve just played; he’s thinking about who we have next week and who’s hurt. But this was a time to reflect on the season and all we’d gone through.
“I remember him saying, ‘I cannot believe that with everything we had to deal with, we pulled it off.’”
I end HISTORY MADE with this parting thought: And in Hard Rock Stadium, that asterisk – the “good” kind of asterisk, signifying the clear-cut college football champion on and off the field – attached itself permanently to the 2020 Alabama Crimson Tide.
What a ride it was.