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Alabama makes case for greatest team ever

January 12th, 2021

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – Alabama quarterback Mac Jones has spent his four-year career with the explicit instructions of not succumbing to rat poison. That’s the dismissive term that coach Nick Saban created for the praise, hyperbole and expectations that follow big wins.

In the wake of a wire-to-wire dominant performance that delivered Alabama its sixth national title in the past 12 years, Jones dropped a declaration that would normally make his head coach cringe.

“I think we’re the best team to ever play,” Jones said following Alabama’s 52-24 blowout of Ohio State in the College Football Playoff title game. “There’s no team that will ever play an SEC schedule like that again.”

Alabama’s 13-0 season marked just the second undefeated national champion out of Saban’s six at Alabama, and the program’s first since 2009.

There will be a healthy debate about Jones’ claim, starting with LSU’s undefeated 15-0 team from last year. But there will be less of an argument about whether DeVonta Smith has authored the best career for a wide receiver in modern college football.

Smith only needed a half to smash a litany of records on Monday, as he finished with 12 catches for 215 yards and three touchdowns and didn’t catch a ball after halftime. Smith’s 12 catches broke Clemson’s Hunter Renfrow’s record for most in the title game, and he smashed Alabama’s O.J. Howard’s record for most yards in a half.

“Heaven knows what he would have done if he had played the whole game,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.

Alabama QB Mac Jones celebrates after a touchdown by WR DeVonta Smith during the first half of a College Football Playoff title game against Ohio State on Jan. 11. (AP)

Smith dislocated his finger on the second play of Alabama’s first drive of the third quarter, and he didn’t return to the game after “they tried to put it back into place.” After Alabama leapt to a 35-17 halftime lead, everything else had fallen into place for Alabama and the Tide coasted to the finish. Mac Jones threw for a title game-record 464 yards and Najee Harris finished with 158 all-purpose yards.

Smith slammed his helmet in disgust when he was escorted to the locker room and returned to the sideline with his right hand heavily wrapped. By then, he’d already furthered a season that has redefined excellence for a position. “We had a mission,” Smith said. “Everybody wanted to end things the right way.”

You can argue whether this Alabama team is the greatest under Saban or perhaps of all time. Any argument against Smith’s place in history, however, will be tougher to defend. In his final game, Smith completed his award binge by adding the Most Valuable Player of the CFP title game to a daunting haul. That included the first Heisman Trophy by a wide receiver since Desmond Howard in 1991 and just the fourth in the award’s gilded history.

Smith also won the Associated Press Player of the Year, the Biletnikoff Award for the country’s top receiver and enough others that he’ll require extra cloud space for future online bios.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen one better than that,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said of Smith. “He just seemed to create a lot of separation. He’s obviously very fast. He plays stronger than he looks. He’s not a very big guy, but his play strength is significant. He just eats up ground down the field once he gets those strides going.”

We first noticed those strides in the College Football Playoff title game against Georgia four years ago. Smith ran underneath a 41-yard lob from backup quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in overtime for a walk-off touchdown pass that resonates as one of the most dramatic in this generation of college football.

Smith’s exit from college football in Monday’s title game against Ohio State managed to somehow be more spectacular, more resplendent and yet still managed to leave us wanting more. Even missing nearly the entire second half, Smith delivered one of the best big-game performances by a receiver in the history of the sport.

Alabama Crimson Tide WR DeVonta Smith runs ahead of Ohio State's Josh Proctor during a College Football Playoff title game on Jan. 11.  (Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
Alabama Crimson Tide WR DeVonta Smith runs ahead of Ohio State’s Josh Proctor during a College Football Playoff title game on Jan. 11. (Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

On Monday night, he scored on a 44-yard touchdown in which he sprinted behind Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade. He scored a five-yard touchdown on a brilliant little flip on the goal line in which coordinator Steve Sarkisian started him in motion, he stopped in the backfield and reversed director to free up for an easy score. Along the way, he set the SEC record for receiving yards and further cemented his status as a -top-15 pick, no matter how skinny NFL scouts say his legs are.

With an Ohio State game plan that should have been centered on stopping him, Sarkisian found creative ways to continually get him open. There were motions, rubs and shifts that all worked in Smith’s favor, as he left an array of OSU defenders flailing at him. The cushion that Ohio State afforded him much of the first half will be second-guessed deep into the Columbus winter.

One of the enduring legacies of Smith’s dominance may be that his performance will lead to eight months of giddy anticipation in Austin for Sarkisian’s debut as Texas’ coach. You know a receiver is dominant when he can get another program’s fan base percolating with the power of possibility.

Smith’s performance also offers a reminder of the paradigm shift that we’re undergoing in college football. A program once defined by trench dominance, ball control and suffocating defenses has completed its script flip to become the sport’s premiere offensive juggernaut.

Smith led the way, with the most impressive part perhaps being that he wasn’t even regarded as Alabama’s best receiver early this season. (That was Jaylen Waddle, who returned from an Oct. 24 ankle injury to cameo for three catches for 34 yards on Monday.)

Smith entered title-game history with an ethereal burst and left with a sonic boom that should leave little doubt he’ll be considered one of the sport’s best big-game receivers of all time.

Four years ago, Smith needed overtime to flash for his historic moment. On Monday, he only needed a half to secure his legacy.

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