University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban has a pretty sweet gig. After he won the national championship last January, his second BCS title in three years, Saban received a raise and contract extension worth $5.62 million a year. That means Saban is set to make $45 million over eight years in base salary and "talent fees."
The final BCS rankings for 2012 were released yesterday, with undefeated Notre Dame at No. 1 and once-beaten Alabama at No. 2. The two schools will meet for the national title on January 7 in Miami, and my bet is that Saban's Crimson Tide will steamroll the Fighting Irish, giving Alabama it's third championship in four years. In fact, I don't think the game will be close.
Saban already is adored by Alabama's far-flung fan base, which spreads in all directions, far beyond our state's borders. And college football cognoscenti regularly toss the noun "genius" in his direction.
Me? I'm adored by my wife--sort of. (OK, let's get real--she tolerates me, most days.) As for descriptive nouns, one of my blog readers called me a "twit" last week. Can't remember the last time anyone used the word "genius" and my name in the same sentence.
But I am smarter than Nick Saban--and we have evidence from Saturday's SEC Championship Game to prove it.
Alabama beat Georgia 32-28, in a game that was much more dramatic than it should have been. Georgia came within five yards, and a few seconds, of upsetting Alabama. My wife and I watched the closing moments from a seafood restaurant on Highway 280 in Birmingham. When Georgia's last play came up short of the goal line, and the final seconds ticked off, patrons and employees started whooping, hollering, and hugging each other.
Alabama had not won a national title in . . . oh, about 10 months . . . so you can understand the excitement.
We are regulars at this establishment and know that several of its staff members are from Athens (Greece, not Alabama--or Georgia, for that matter). The way these folks were carrying on, you would think they had been conceived in Tuscaloosa. Even people from the land of Socrates get carried away with Saban Mania. Heck, our guy Nick probably could get elected mayor of Thessaloniki.
But the Georgia game proved Nick Saban ain't all that. In fact, he's not even as smart as me--in at least one respect.
Here's the deal: Alabama outgained Georgia by a significant margin--512 yards to 394--and it should have won the game by two touchdowns, at least. Instead, it came down to the last gasp, and Georgia darned near pulled it out, all because Nick Saban isn't as smart as me.
Alabama had all sorts of screw ups in the game, including a blocked field goal that was returned for a touchdown. But the Crimson Tide's biggest blunder came earlier than that--and it can be laid directly at the feet of Saint Nick.
Midway through the second quarter, Alabama was trailing 7-0 when it drove to the Georgia 1-yard line. With bruising tailback Eddie Lacy chewing up yardage, the Crimson Tide was poised to tie a game that looked like it might settle into a defensive struggle. But when quarterback A.J. McCarron handed the ball to Lacy on second and goal, the Tide's star runner made a fundamental error that has become all too common in college football.
Upon meeting a wall of Georgia resistance, Lacy thought he saw a space where he could reach the football across the goal line. For reasons that escape me, football players at all levels have started doing this in recent years. I can't attach a date to the trend's origins, but it seems to be driven by TV color men who make it a point to repeatedly say, "If the ball crosses the plane of the end zone, it's a touchdown."
That seems to be an accurate description of the rules, and it applies all over the field. For example, stretching the ball out an arm's length might give you an important first down to continue a drive. The official spot goes where the ball reaches, not where the body lands.
But here's the rub: Players are taught at the junior-high level, if not earlier, that there is a right way and a wrong way to carry a football. It is to be cradled and tucked in close to the body. In heavy traffic, it's a good idea to wrap both arms around the football. Players also are taught at an early age that one of the biggest no-no's in the game is to fumble the football. Possession of the ball wins games, and ball security is a must.
So what happened to Eddie Lacy, who otherwise played a game for the ages? When he reached the ball toward the goal line, that gave a Georgia player the chance to swat it loose. The ball bounced backwards for about four yards before McCarron recovered it at the Georgia 5. On the next play, McCarron threw an ill-advised pass that was intercepted in the end zone.
Alabama came away with no points--not even a field goal--because Lacy failed to secure the football when trying to "break the plane" of the end zone.
As my wife and cats can tell you, I've been railing about this "breaking the plane" trend for years. It's terrible fundamental football. Yes, it's great to make a first down or score a touchdown. But possession is paramount, and that means the football must be secured at all times. Attempting to stretch the ball across "the plane" probably increases the chance of a fumble 10 fold. And fumbles are likely to be recovered by the defense, ensuring that you will get zero points on your drive.
This "breaking the plane" stuff is the sporting trend that won't go away. It's worse than the Macarena, I tell you.
In our state, I see Auburn players do it, UAB players do it. On a given Saturday, you can watch television for hours and see players from almost every conference do it.
If I can readily see that this is bad football, why can't coaches with their multi-year contracts and "talent fees" figure it out.
Here is what Nick Saban should have done way back in August, during preseason practice: After gathering all of his players, especially the ones likely to carry the ball, he should have spoken thusly: "If I catch any of you stretching the ball to 'break the plane,' I'm going to have the entire team running stadium steps while I watch Gone With the Wind in the shade. When Clark tells Scarlett, 'Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn,' you can stop running. I think that's about 3 hours and 35 minutes into the movie.
If that didn't get their attention, Saban could have added this: "I don't care what you hear some announcer say on TV. I am Nick Saban, the smartest coach in football, and I say, 'Protect the damn ball at all times, in all areas of the field.' If you come up short of a touchdown or a first down, we'll make it on the next play or the next possession. But under no circumstances are you to try stretching the ball 'across the plane.' If one guy tries it one time, all of you will be running stadium steps--while I take in the glory of GWTW, probably in surround sound.
"It's your choice."
If Saban had gotten that message across, stressing ball security above all else, Alabama fans could have relaxed during the fourth quarter of the Georgia game. Instead, Roll Tiders--even the ones from Greece--were holding their collective breaths until the final seconds.
Nick Saban already is hailed by many as the sharpest mind in college football--and that bandwagon is likely to get even more crowded after Alabama crunches Notre Dame.
So why isn't Nick Saban smarter than me? More importantly, why don't I have an eight-year contract, with "talent fees"?
I posed that question to our cats as we watched a late game on Saturday night. They still have blank looks on their faces.