ATLANTA — Nick Saban hasn’t gone conservative in his old age.
The 66-year-old Alabama football coach won his record-tying sixth national championship Monday night with one of the most brazen, gutty moves on the game’s biggest stage.
At halftime of Alabama’s 26-23 overtime win over Georgia, he benched starting quarterback Jalen Hurts and went with freshman Tua Tagovailoa, who hardly looked fazed by the stakes.
Tagovailoa promptly passed, ran, cajoled and pushed the Crimson Tide to an incredible comeback victory. He played with such aggressive abandon that if Saban had asked him to kick the extra point, he would’ve done it without hesitation.
Hurts had led Alabama to wins in 25 of the 27 college games he had started, but at halftime, Alabama trailed 13-0. Georgia, coached by former trusted Saban assistant Kirby Smart, had taken such control of the game that the halftime edge look more like 33-0.
In response, Saban made what some might consider a huge gamble. He turned to Tagovailoa, who hadn’t played much this season except for some mop-up duty late against overwhelmed opponents.
With a national championship on the line, Tagovailoa threw three touchdown passes, including the game-winner in overtime. His 41-yarder to Devonta Smith Jr. — another freshman — nailed down the victory.
On that play, Tagovailoa didn’t look like an inexperienced quarterback at all. Dropping back to pass, he looked away from Smith at first, drawing the defense’s attention to the middle of the field. Meanwhile, Smith was running down the left sideline, having gained a couple of steps on the defensive back who was trying to cover him.
Tagovailoa whipped his eyes back to Smith and launched a pass that the wide receiver ran under and caught as he crossed the goal line for a touchdown.
Switching to the freshman quarterback to win a national championship might serve as the defining moment for Saban’s coaching career, just as the goal-line stand to beat Penn State for the 1978 crown did for Alabama legend Bear Bryant.
Bryant won six national titles, with the last coming in 1979. Until Monday, that stood alone as the most in major college football history.
Monday’s was Saban’s sixth, with five coming at Alabama in the last nine seasons. Another came at LSU in 2003.
Smart, the 42-year-old young gun, learned much about his profession from Saban. Maybe Monday served as another lesson — know when to gamble.