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Tynes: The death of Alabama’s inevitability during the Nick Saban era

Yes, make no mistake, it did happen. I saw it with my own eyes. Just when things looked dour late, Nick Saban had no choice. The sun had already set behind the San Gabriel Mountains. Damn, Saban. Don’t do it, not like this. Not in front of the Rose queen, the royal court and all of the maize and blue Teslas in Arroyo Seco. Not in front of Audra McDonald, for God’s sake. But in the late moments of the Rose Bowl, Saban had to have cracked open his sacred talisman and offered another wish to the genie he’s imprisoned in his golf khakis since Obama was still in office.

January in the playoff meant there had to be a certain crimson magic brewing under the leaves in Pasadena. Do you think all of these Bammers flew ’cross the nation, in L.A.N.K. paraphernalia to watch the Tide roll over? The entire pathos of Alabama football in the last two decades was predicated on Letting Any Naysayer Know. In fact, Bama fans told me at halftime they were confident they’d win the ballgame even if their team started slow, wasn’t leading in yardage and forgot how to convert on third down. What else did Bama do besides win during the winter’s coldest moments despite the collective groans coming from everywhere except the Southeast.

Michigan defensive end Josaiah Stewart (5) reacts after stopping a run by Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe (4) to defeat the Crimson Tide in overtime of the College Football Playoff semifinals at the Rose Bowl Monday.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

In a battle for entitlement between Michigan and Alabama, the press was painting Michigan the mighty underdog leading into the game, even if the oddsmakers in Vegas tagged the Wolverines as slight favorites. Some of us are still too young and beautiful to remember, or even give a damn, frankly, about the Big Blue from yesteryear. Most of the vexatious Michiganders we’ve grown to hate for morphing into a modern Notre Dame migrated from the Midwest to Santa Monica to live year ’round. So, excuse me if I can’t be bothered to remember that Bo Schemblecher lost five times in the ’70s in the Rose Bowl, or take the “Michigan vs. Everybody” mantras seriously. For large runs of the playoff semifinal, Wolverines fans didn’t look like they believed the sacred vows sewn onto their shirts. It was settling into their faces as the game was rumbling toward its conclusion. The thump of impending heartbreak was part of their football pedigree.

The game was uncertain for most of the last moments. The only certainty felt like what always happens in these moments, when the mighty machine of Alabama makes its final adaptation and kills off another would-be from seeing the national championship game.

That was: until Jim Harbaugh countered with his own Hail Mary. It was just hard to notice at first.

In front of nearly 100,000 in the Rose Bowl, the warm January afternoon turned chilly. When the sun disappeared, the cold instantly came, and late into the fourth quarter that freeze crept to the bottom of the bowl. We, on the sidelines, started to breathe as heavy as those standing on top of Terry Donahue Pavilion. I couldn’t believe it. Alabama, after being battered and beaten for most of the contest, was not only winning late, but looked like a completely altered image. It felt like Saban was going to do it, again. Everyone in the Rose Bowl felt the sickening churn in the depths of our guts. Saban had turned another national stage into a disaster, a vast abyss of icy winds and hellacious fury. No wonder I could see the frost from my breath.

It took another hour for God to answer Harbaugh’s call and for the temperature to even out while the winds stopped whipping from end zone to end zone. When Michigan tied the game with 90 seconds left in regulation, the howl ringing inside the stadium mirrored the Big House in Ann Arbor. Its eventual victory in overtime was even more damning. Not only did they kill the beast, launching Michigan to their first real title game in the school’s history, they slowed the unstoppable Southeastern Conference for the first time in nine years from putting one of their behemoth programs in the title game. A feat so spectacular, it left nearby SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, standing under the goal post where the Wolverines stopped the Tide, with his jaw dropped.

As the fireworks shot off from behind the goal posts, Wolverines flooded the field from the opposite sideline. A blizzard of confetti parachuted down from the heavens. It almost didn’t seem real: but there on that field died the illusion of divine inevitability. Saban and the Tide were no longer the infallible beasts of college football. It was a feat that could only happen at the Rose Bowl.

Wolverines players were skipping toward the locker room after the trophy presentation, roses betwixt their teeth, battle scars on their bodies. Not many players in the recent history of college football have gone to the underworld and come back alive. But there was no doubt they belonged here, at last. In the dark of the night in Pasadena, right before they disappeared to the party in the locker room, were players screaming to the moon, “I DON’T GIVE A PISS ABOUT NOTHIN’ BUT THE TIDE!”

Alabama offensive lineman Tyler Booker and quarterback Jalen Milroe walk off the field after losing to Michigan.

Alabama offensive lineman Tyler Booker, left, and quarterback Jalen Milroe walk off the field after losing to Michigan in the Rose Bowl Monday.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Saban and his starting quarterback, Jalen Milroe, rode by the locker rooms on a long golf cart as the Michigan celebrations continued — Wolverines fans shouting the university mottos and fight songs above them from the connecting bridges of the stadium. Milroe was shielded by a towel over his head, but it was clear he was listlessly staring into the nothingness of his cleats. Saban was seated next to his soldier, wearing the mug of the defeated general.

By the time he was seen at the dais in front of the gathered press, Saban appeared even more tortured — forced to endure the same agony he’d been dishing out to the rest of the country for as long as some of us watching had been alive. That reality was silently shaking him to his core. There has rarely been a postseason defeat in the glitzy dynasty Saban built in Tuscaloosa County. And this one, of course it was this one, where we all may have seen the truth rear its ugly head. I’m sure someone’s meemaw is hewing now about how Saban deserves the ax. Even at the end of his remarks to the media, he and his wife, Terri, exchanged a long, somber hug once he was done delivering his sullen final words of the season.

“I just wish that I could have done more as a coach to help them be successful and help them finish.” Saban said, clicking his teeth and looking away with reddening eyes. There’s an innate pressure to playing at Alabama. One of those includes titles, which the Tide have missed on in three straight seasons now, their longest drought with Saban at the helm. All that remained was another missed chance. Every second Saban sat there, it was sinking in. “All we can do now is learn from the lessons that, sometimes, failings bring to us.”

It was a sight many of us never thought we’d never see: Nick Saban, the mortal man.

And, he wasn’t the only one. Let them Bama boys tell it, they just didn’t live up to the standard tonight.

“You know, even though guys got they heads down, you gotta be proud to accomplish what we have so far,” defensive lineman Justin Eboigbe told a small scrum of media. His eyes were as low as anyone’s that night. “We were able to be SEC champions. You have to look at the positives, not just the negatives right now.”

Tyler Booker, the Tide’s starting left guard who went to high school at IMG with Michigan’s winning quarterback J.J. McCarthy, was another Bama player who kept a cool head after the loss. He noted the team was young and would be back. On the field after the game, helmet off, he found McCarthy and hugged him tight. “I love you baby,” he said. Booker pulled him in tighter. “I’m so happy for you,” he said. “Go finish the job.”

Alabama tailback Jase McClellan runs the ball under pressure from Michigan's Junior Colson and back Will Johnson

Alabama running back Jase McClellan (2) runs the ball under pressure from Michigan Wolverines linebacker Junior Colson (25) and defensive back Will Johnson (2) during the fourth quarter at the Rose Bowl Monday.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“We’re still trying our best to embody the standard,” he said after the game. “We talked a lot about the standard after the Georgia game and we kind of got away from it today. We have to make sure we get back to it and keep it through the whole [game].” Booker said he was going to use the playoff experience as a driving force to get Bama back to their contending ways next season. “Just remember this feeling,” the sophomore said, noting how young this team was. “A lot of guys are coming back. Guys in the right position are going to step up and help us win next year.”

One thing Michigan disrupted on the Alabama offensive line was a direct challenge to the group’s set of rules as a unit. They had a lot of movement across their defensive line and offered a few stunts that confused the Tide’s linemen. Booker acknowledged that Michigan was certainly the best defense in the country. “When we were in six-man protection or five-man protection, they had a good tell on what we were doing,” he said. “They had rule-breakers over there.”

“Of course we’re expected to win every year, but this is football,” he continued. “College football is different now. Everybody’s good, now.”

Terrion Arnold, one of the Tide’s starting corners who said that the game would be more like a heavyweight title fight, told me after that the difference was execution. OK, sure, but what about running it on fourth-and-goal from the three-yard line with the game on the line in overtime? “It’s one of those things that the offense practices,” he said of the run by Milroe. “I love when the ball is in his hands. He’s a playmaker. Unfortunately, we came up short. But, I wouldn’t of had it no other way than with the ball in his hands.”

Behind some dark sunglasses, he turned zen considering what it meant that Bama came up short. Most of these players have lived with the immense demands of being the kings of college football for quite some time. What is required to survive in Title Town Tuscaloosa is a different request than some other programs. Eventually, as players who’ve won it all before for the Tide have told me, everyone learns how to shoulder the weight of being the sport’s crowning champion for the last generation. It just seems, now, that maybe college football’s one great civilization is finally falling.

“You have to look forward, pick your guys up and really grow from it,” Arnold said, noting it’s also something you have to constantly do to survive in this world. “This is one of those things where you can get emotional, get down on yourself, beat yourself up, but you can’t do that in life. The sun is gon’ rise tomorrow, the moon is gon’ [shine] tonight. So we have to keep lookin’ forward. We have to continue to keep livin’.”

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