I suppose that I could tell you we should be enjoying this, but I don’t know if Nick Saban and enjoyment belong in the same ZIP code, let alone the same column, so scratch that idea. I suppose I should encourage you to tune in to Monday night’s college football national championship game with the expectation that we might be watching the culmination of the greatest dynasty in modern sports history, because if Alabama defeats Clemson, it will have won four national championships in seven years, which is something that hasn’t been done since Notre Dame did it in the 1940s. But I imagine that doesn’t fill you with warm, comforting thoughts, either.
I suppose I can tell you we should admire the way that Nick Saban has subsumed great swaths of college football in his wake, and I suppose I can say we should recognize the enormity of this accomplishment in a world where distractions abound, particularly among the generation that now plays the games. I suppose I could make some tortured metaphor about Nick Saban being an analog coach in a digital world, and I suppose I could launch into a series of PowerPoint TED Talk bullets about what makes him an exemplar of great leadership, but fuck all of that, because the one thing I want out of this game is for Clemson to find a way to fuck with his sense of fastidiousness.
Just, please: Make it interesting, goddammit.
That hasn’t happened in Alabama’s three previous national championship games. It didn’t happen when Alabama injured Texas quarterback Colt McCoy and then beat up the Longhorns in 2010; it didn’t happen when Alabama, in a rematch with LSU, summarily dismantled the Tigers 21-0 in 2012; and it didn’t happen in 2013, when the Crimson Tide overwhelmed Notre Dame 42-14. None of those teams could find a way to throw Saban off-balance. None of those teams ever brought the one thing to a game that terrifies Saban the most, which is a sense of joyful chaos.
I’m hoping that Clemson is the team that can do this. I’m hoping that Dabo Swinney’s unsightly dancing is a metaphor for the energy the Tigers plan to bring on Monday night; I’m hoping that Swinney’s quarterback, Deshaun Watson, will play with the kind of unpredictable panache that he’s exhibited in every other game this season. I want Alabama’s defense to feel confusion; I want Alabama’s offense to be forced to stretch the field and not merely stick the football in the breadbasket of Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry on 62 consecutive plays. I’m hoping that Clemson is a team that, like Ohio State last season and Oklahoma the year before, has both the requisite talent and the requisite unpredictability to get all inside Saban’s gearbox and gum up the works.
Because that’s the only thing we really want to see, isn’t it? I don’t even care if Clemson wins; I just want them to make Alabama work for it. I want them to sweat. I want Saban to have to confront something he hasn’t prepared for, something entirely unforeseen and something that makes for first-rate entertainment rather than plodding competence. I want them to force Nick Saban out of his bubble, and see what happens from there.
There is a story about Saban that may or may not be true, but I feel like this is a good time to retell it: Back when he was Michigan State, he met a friend at a bar one night to talk football, and a man pulled out a gun and robbed the bar and Saban was so engrossed in the conversation that he didn’t even notice.
That story comes from Monte Burke’s recent biography of Saban, which is a well-reported and ultimately depressing tale of a man who is often too focused on his own thoughts to even recognize the chaos unfolding around him. Again, I don’t care if Clemson wins; I just want the Tigers to disrupt Saban enough that he has to at least pay attention. I want Clemson to bring the chaos. I want Clemson to rob the damned bar.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb