Gil LeBreton

This time Alabama kept its championship focus

Alabama players celebrate at AT&T Stadium in Arlington after a 38-0 victory over Michigan State. Alabama now has two victories as the Cowboys’ home stadium, one more than the Cowboys have.
Alabama players celebrate at AT&T Stadium in Arlington after a 38-0 victory over Michigan State. Alabama now has two victories as the Cowboys’ home stadium, one more than the Cowboys have. Star-Telegram

Faster. Stronger. Deeper.

And, with a clear and resounding certainty, more Alabama-er.

It was 12 months ago that Alabama coach Nick Saban, sifting through the embers of a seven-point Sugar Bowl defeat, expressed bitter disdain over the way his Crimson Tide team had approached its first appearance in the College Football Playoff.

Bourbon Street. An underrated opponent from an oft-disparaged conference. The X-factor of Ohio State’s fluid quarterback situation.

Whatever misdirected the Tide, the distractions conspired to fuel what seemed like an upset victory by the eventual CFP champion Buckeyes.

“Very disappointed,” was the way that Saban chose to describe the night.

But Thursday at AT&T Stadium, the Tide rolled in undeterred. There were no surprises, no second-guessing. The one roster distraction was sent home at midweek before he could disrupt another practice.

As Saban put it, “I think creating the right mindset is probably the most important thing. Teams that have responded to the challenge of what they want to do and what they want to accomplish seem to do a little better in terms of their preparation, their practice.”

And clearly, the Crimson Tide again smells the prize.

Abounding in five-star recruits, All-Americas and a transfer quarterback having the night of his life, Alabama staked its claim in the CFP title game Thursday with a 38-0 dismantling of Michigan State.

By its own creative algebra, Alabama claims 15 football national championships. The Tide just won its 25th Southeastern Conference championship. They are 13-1, though they are challenged by the toughest division in college football.

Yet, when facing the Big Ten champions for the second year in a row, the Tide turned the 80th annual Cotton Bowl into a yawnfest.

Happy New Year. Happy same old Crimson Tide.

Roundly described as merely a caretaker quarterback, Jake Coker, formerly of Florida State, shook off the Spartans’ pass rush and kept finding Bama pass receivers sprinting in the Michigan State secondary.

Already a star, freshman Calvin Ridley caught eight Coker passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns. Coker himself completed 25 of 30 passes for 286 yards, earning the game’s offensive MVP trophy.

So efficient was the Tide on offense and so dominating was Saban’s defense, Heisman Trophy running back Derrick Henry was relegated to a relatively minor role. He carried the football only 20 times, gaining 75 yards.

Clemson, undefeated and ranked No. 1, is going to have its hands full.

Henry has the most storied bauble from the season, but the Alabama defense has forged the backbone of the Tide’s story well.

Against the Tide defenders, Florida managed only seven first downs and 180 total yards in the SEC title game. LSU had 12 first downs and 182 yards. Arkansas finished with 10 first downs. Auburn had only 12.

Michigan State, therefore, to no great surprise, struggled to move the chains. At the intermission, the Spartans had been held to 124 net yards and a minus-9 on the ground.

More ominously, Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook had squandered a late first-half scoring opportunity by throwing an interception at the goal line.

Alabama never looked back after that.

It wasn’t the first time we’ve seen Alabama convincingly smother what was supposed to be a formidable foe.

The Tide remembered what happened a year ago.

“I think that probably was one of the catalysts for this year’s team having something to prove,” Saban said before the game. “They’ve done the things that they need to do to be able to give themselves another opportunity to see how they could play in a playoff game.”

Lesson learned. Message delivered.

This Alabama team faced 11 bowl teams this season. Seven opponents were ranked when they played the Crimson Tide.

Can there be any doubt that undefeated Clemson and once-defeated Alabama — both runaway victors Thursday — are the most worthy two teams to play for the national championship in eight days?

Better eat your Wheaties, Clemson.

The Tide is fast. Strong. Deep.

And very Alabama.

Gil LeBreton: 817-390-7697, glebreton@star-telegram.com, @gilebreton

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