Having won seven national championships in college football, including six with Alabama, coach Nick Saban isn't about to rank his title teams.
Yet there is little doubt the 2020 Crimson Tide will be tough to top moving forward.
"This team showed great perseverance and great resiliency," Saban said Tuesday on a Zoom call. "This was kind of the ultimate team. It was like a high school team in terms of how they got along together and how they supported each other and how they played together and how they overcame adversity. We've had teams here that have probably had more talent overall that never accomplished what this team accomplished.
"It's very difficult to go undefeated, and it's very difficult to deal with success, but whatever the challenge was for this team, they were able to do it. There was never any complaining about anything. This is just the most together, committed group I think we've ever had the opportunity to be associated with, and I think that's special."
Those comments transpired hours after Saban had watery eyes during the trophy ceremony that followed Alabama's 52-24 decimating of Ohio State at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens. The bludgeoning of the Buckeyes completed a 13-0 season for the Crimson Tide in which they won 12 games by at least 15 points and averaged 48.5 points against a coronavirus-altered schedule featuring 11 Southeastern Conference opponents before playoff matchups against Notre Dame and Ohio State.
Alabama produced three of the top-five finishers in the Heisman Trophy balloting with receiver and runaway winner DeVonta Smith, quarterback Mac Jones and running back Najee Harris. Jones completed 36 of 45 passes for 464 yards and five touchdowns Monday night, with Smith collecting 12 receptions for 215 yards and three scores before having to leave the game early in the third quarter with a dislocated finger.
"We set this as a goal, to potentially be the greatest team to ever play, and I think we made a valid statement in winning the national championship tonight," Jones said early Tuesday morning. "Who would have thought we would have won every game against an all-SEC schedule with everything going on and then to finish off the last couple games the way we did?
"I think we're the best team to ever play. There is no team that will ever play an SEC schedule like that again."
When asked about Smith and the damage he inflicted in the first half alone, Ohio State coach Ryan Day said, "I don't know if I've seen one better than that."
Where it started
Alabama has become the first program in college football history to win six national titles in a 12-year stretch, and the weeks and months leading up to the 38-19 opening win at Missouri on Sept. 26 provided an incredible foundation for the second undefeated run of the Saban era.
The return of Harris, Smith, left tackle Alex Leatherwood and inside linebacker Dylan Moses from last season's 11-2 team that sustained losses to LSU and Auburn and missed out on the College Football Playoff for the first time gave Alabama a veteran nucleus from which to work, and there was stability in the return of coordinators Steve Sarkisian and Pete Golding. The Crimson Tide had not returned both coordinators since Lane Kiffin and Kirby Smart in 2015.
Alabama was just hours away from its first spring practice when the coronavirus outbreak hijacked normalcy in every way, but extensive testing that was often conducted daily provided Crimson Tide players a comfort bubble during the summer months.
"Coach Saban is doing everything he can to make sure everybody stays negative," sophomore defensive lineman DJ Dale said in August, "and he's giving us the confidence to be able to practice around each other."
Saban even provided a passionate plea to attempt a season, evoking his hometown of Monongah, West Virginia, and the passion that community displayed for high school football. There were distractions throughout the country, whether the Big Ten cancelling play before reversing course or notable player opt-outs such as Georgia quarterback Jamie Newman and LSU receiver JaMarr Chase, but the Crimson Tide never endured any departures.
"Not once did I think about that," Harris said before the Missouri opener. "There are concerns. There are so many uncertainties, but it is what it is."
In fact, Saban's absence would be the most notable adjustment Alabama had to face on the COVID front.
"We told the players that they would have to adapt or die in terms of all the things that would happen this year," Saban said. "We also told them that whoever manages these situations and disruptions is going to be the team that has the best chance to be successful, and none of the things that happened affected our team. When I had the false positive and missed three days before the Georgia game, the players didn't skip a beat.
"When I missed the Auburn game, they didn't skip a beat. There was a resiliency we all developed because of the constant changes."
Alabama beat Georgia and Auburn by a combined score of 83-37.
There were unwanted changes that occurred unrelated to COVID, such as Jaylen Waddle's broken ankle at Tennessee and center Landon Dickerson's torn ACL in the SEC title win over Florida. Saban said Tuesday that receiver John Metchie played on a bad ankle for the second half of the season, so the Crimson Tide were essentially decimated at receiver during the second half Monday night yet still outscored the Buckeyes 17-7 after the break.
Saban said Tuesday that the process of talking to players about their futures already has begun. There are multiple juniors such as Jones, Waddle and cornerback Patrick Surtain who are expected to turn pro, but there also could be seniors who use the NCAA's extra year of eligibility that has been awarded in this pandemic.
The future prospects are bright after a signing class that contains four of the nation's top-10 receiver recruits and the possibility of former Penn State and Houston Texans coach Bill O'Brien becoming the new offensive coordinator following Sarkisian's departure to Texas, but this 2020 team will not be forgotten any time soon.
"To me, this team accomplished more almost than any team," said Saban, who seemed to add the "almost" simply to avoid playing favorites. "That's no disrespect to any other teams we've had or any championship teams, but this team won 11 SEC games. No other team has done that. They won the SEC, went undefeated in the SEC, and then they beat two great teams in the playoffs with no break in between."
Alabama's players sure won't forget this adventure, either.
"We didn't hear the outside noise," redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Christian Barmore said. "We ignored the COVID stuff and just worked hard together and grinded out during camp and scrimmages."
Said Smith: "We had a mission. Everybody wanted to end things the right way. We just all came to work every day and put in the work. We got the result that we wanted."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.