The final game of a college football season in a pandemic, a season that was uncertain to be played in the summer and filled with disruption in the fall, ended in the most predictable way: Alabama (13-0) as national champion for the sixth time in the past 12 years under coach Nick Saban.
For Saban, it was the No. 7 career title overall, breaking a tie with Alabama great Paul “Bear” Bryant for the most part by a major college coach.
“For me, this is the ultimate team,” said Saban. “There is more solidarity in this team than in almost any team we have ever had. They’ve had to overcome and persevere so much throughout this season, and they’ve done it beautifully.
The celebration was both familiar and unique. Confetti cannons sent crimson and white rain through the air, and the Tide players raced towards the sideline to grab their championship hats and T-shirts. It’s a rite of passage if you’ve played for Saban.
But this time the band playing the fight song was a hit on the recording and when “Sweet Home Alabama” sounded, only a few thousand Tide fans were still in the building to sing along.
Buckeyes fans were mostly long gone.
Ohio State (7-1) just couldn’t keep up. Justin Fields, playing in what could be his last game before heading to the NFL, had 194 yards and a touchdown. It was unclear for sure if Fields was at 100% after taking a brutal blow to the side in his brilliant semi-final performance against Clemson.
On the Buckeyes’ first try, they lost star backer Trey Sermon to injury and in one game they had to run at top speed, facing one of the big infractions in recent history, they spat too much. Ohio State has never allowed more points in a bowling game.
Fans can debate the best team in the Saban Dynasty, but none will be more memorable than this group. The Tide ended perfectly in a season that couldn’t have been further from it, as COVID-19 forced teams to self-quarantine and endless testing and uncertainty every week with matches played in mostly empty stadiums.
Only about 15,000 fans were at Hard Rock Stadium, with a capacity of 65,326, to witness the last magnificent performance of Smith’s college career.
The Heisman Trophy winner had 12 catches for 215 yards and three touchdowns, all in the first half as Crimson Tide took a 35-17 lead.
Using an array of moves and wrong directions, outgoing offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian spun Ohio heads of state in an attempt to find Smith.
Sometimes it was easier than that. On Smith’s third touchdown, he lined up in the lunge, closest to the three-receiver line on the left side. Smith cut quickly down midfield and was suddenly faced with a linebacker, whom he left in the dust for a 42-yard score with 41 seconds left in the second quarter.
Smith, who ended his first season catching a touchdown pass from 2017 national championship-winner Tua Tagovailoa, ended his career in Alabama as the career main receiver in Southeastern Conference history. and the most outstanding offensive player in his third title game.
As for Sarkissian, he is on his way to Texas as a head coach. Longhorns fans must have liked what they saw from their new player. If only he could get Smith and his fellow candidates to Heisman in Austin.
Jones, who finished third in the Heisman poll, was 36 for 45 for a CFP championship record 464 yards and five touchdowns, operating behind a line that rarely made him feel rushed. Harris had 158 scrum yards on 29 touches, scoring three times to give him a record 30 touchdowns this season.
Smith barely played in the second half, leaving with an injury. He returned to the sideline in the fourth quarter with his right hand wrapped around the wrist, two fingers glued together and wearing a Heisman mask.
Alabama barely missed it and cracked 50 early in the fourth quarter when Harris came in intact by a yard.
Smith and Harris surprised some by returning to college after last season for their final years.
Boy, was it worth it. Along with Jones, another member of this recruiting class of 2017, they will leave Alabama as leaders of a team that has managed to make an uphill march through the pandemic seem easy.
Follow Ralph D. Russo on https://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen on https://westwoodonepodcasts.com/pods/ap-top-25-college-football-podcast/