Following Alabama’s Wednesday football practice, Alabama Coach Nick Saban discussed the preparation by his team in the first two workouts for the College Football Playoff national championship game, the challenge that Clemson presents, and where Alabama must improve from its semifinal win over Washington in the Peach Bowl.
Alabama and Clemson will face off Monday night in Tampa for the national championship. The Crimson Tide, 14-0, is ranked first in the nation, while the Clemson Tigers, 13-1, are second.
“The first two practices have been pretty good for us,” Saban said. “The players have a good mindset. The energy level has been good. Preparation is so important. We have a shorter turnaround this than what we had a year ago. Focus on execution.
“I think sometimes when you practice hard, it makes the game easier. Everybody's got to trust and believe in each other so they can go out there and do their job and have confidence that we'll have success.
I'm really proud of the team and the opportunity they've created for themselves to be able to play in the national championship game this year.”
As for Clemson, coming off a 31-0 win over Ohio State in its semifinal game, Saban said, “We're playing against a really, really good Clemson team. Lot of skill players. Lot of team speed. Great quarterback. Deshaun Watson is maybe the best college football player in the country. He's got a lot of experience. He's very productive as a passer. He's athletic as a runner. They have quarterback runs when they want to use them, and he's very effective at it.
“He's got really, really good receivers starting with Mike Williams, a guy that's got a whole bunch of receptions and over 1,000 yards receiving. Wayne Gallman is a really good runner. So they have really good balance on offense. Their offensive line is good.
“Defensively, they're very talented up front. Make a lot of sacks. Hard to score on. One of the top defensive teams in the country, and they're good on special teams. This is a team that doesn't have a lot of weaknesses.
“You've got to be fundamental in your execution and not make mental errors that are going to give them opportunities because they will take advantage of it, and that will be really important for us in this game.”
Last year when the same teams met in the championship game in Glendale, Arizona, the Tide took a 45-40 win. Obviously, not much defense, and, as such, both teams were quite successful on third down plays.
Saban said third downs will be important Monday.
“I think it's always important,” he said. “I think especially when you're playing against teams that want to play tempo. When they convert a third down, it allows them to extend drives so the defense has to play these longer drives. When you get off the field on third down, you're usually shortening drives, which that's when they like to go fast, when they convert on third down. I think it's always important in a game like this against the style of offense that they play, it's critical to get off the field on third down. Probably as important as anything.”
Alabama’s defense was excellent against Washington in the Peach Bowl last week. The offense, though, struggled.
Saban didn’t have a problem identifying the offensive problem.
“We had 25 negative plays in the last game. We had poor execution, a lot of poor fundamentals. Didn't execute well. Weren't very consistent. Made some good plays. Bo Scarbrough played really, really well. Some other guys played well but not with enough consistency and execution to eliminate a lot of the negative plays, which puts you behind in the down and distance, which gives you way too many third and longs, which means you don't extend drives.
“I think a lot of people were frustrated with the way things went. I think they're working hard this week to try to get all those things corrected. Every guy's got to do his job, trust and believe in it, in doing it the right way with the right technique and together as a group to give the play the best chance to work whether it's a running play or a passing play. We have to do a better job as coaches to get them ready to do that.”
Saban is trying to walk the fine line between having his team prepared for a physical game, and yet not being too physical in practice for the game.
“We've tried to cut it down,” he said. “Last year we cut it down a lot for the Michigan State game. We had a lot of time off. This year we have a little less time. We're actually practicing a little less for this game than we did a year ago. We try to cut back, go with spider pads sometimes.
“We're going to practice in pads for two days for this game and that's it.
“We don't want to beat the players up, but at the same time being physical and tackling well, things like that, for college players, even though it's late in the season. I think if you watch bowl games, you probably see some of the most horrendous, horrific tackling you've ever seen in your life. That's what I see when I watch the games. We missed quite a few tackles in the game as well. Not too many. Guys hustling to the ball when we did miss, there was always another guy there.
“Those are the type of things that players really have to push themselves to practice. We don’t want to beat them up, but we don't want to put them out on the field when they're not ready to be able to play and do the things they need to do to have success."