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How this Alabama game-time gamble paid off

College football ended its season on Monday with high drama. Alabama won its fifth championship since 2007 in a battle against its Southeastern conference neighbor, Georgia. In storybook fashion, a freshman player who never started a college game threw three touchdowns, including one in overtime that clinched the victory. Jeffrey Brown takes a look back with Mike Pesca of “The Gist” podcast.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now for another slice of life from Alabama.

    College football ended its season with high drama last night.

    As Jeffrey Brown tells us, the winner was familiar, but the path to victory was anything but.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It was a battle of two Southeastern Conference neighbors, the universities of Alabama and Georgia. And, at halftime, Georgia was up 13-0 and seemed to be in control.

    But Alabama coach Nick Saban made a most unusual gamble, pulling his starting quarterback and inserting freshman Tua Tagovailoa, who'd never started a college game, and putting him into the biggest spotlight of all.

    In storybook fashion, he proceeded to throw three touchdowns, including a dramatic 41-yard toss in overtime, for a 26-23 victory.

  • Announcer:

    Touchdown! Alabama wins! The Crimson Tide will not be denied.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It was Alabama's fifth championship since Saban took over in 2007.

    Mike Pesca, host of Slate's daily news and discussion podcast The Gist was watching, and he joins me now.

    Mike, first of all, it was quite a thriller, wasn't it? What struck you about the game?

  • Mike Pesca:

    That Nick Saban, the great coach of Alabama, was bold enough to make that adjustment at halftime.

    Now, that wasn't surprising, because Nick Saban is a guy who tried on-side kicks at an inopportune time, except it worked out for him in national championship games.

    He's such an excellent coach. And I think a lot of people regard him as a great recruiter, which is certainly part of it. But he has great game-time decision making, and he's bold. I mean, part of the reason he's bold is who is around to say, well, Nick Saban, you made a mistake?

    The guy has an unbelievable track record. But that turned the game around. It made it a totally different game. It made Alabama's offense going from stuck in mud to high-power, a totally different offense. It made for a fascinating ending.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    What does it mean, for those of us who watch and those of us who don't, to bring in a — what they called a true freshman, right, meaning he's actually a freshman, a first-year student? But to bring him in off the bench like that, how very unusual.

  • Mike Pesca:

    Yes. Yes, true freshman is one of the words like day baseball or acoustic guitar that, wait, aren't they all?

    But, no, these days freshman often red-shirt, so you have a 20- or 21-year-old as a freshman, maybe a sophomore. This is guy who was in high school last year. And not only was he a true freshman, a guy who had not thrown a pass in a game since October.

    Not only was he a true freshman. He was throwing to freshmen. A true freshman was running the ball.

    I got a little annoyed by overuse of the phrase true freshman, but it should be underlined that these guys tyros, but in terms of preparation, they seemed as veteran as anyone on the field.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Now, you're talking about coach Nick Saban. He's the most famous coach in the game, Alabama, the most — the football power of our time certainly.

    But these are — it's a team, it's a coach that are loved and hated, right?

  • Mike Pesca:

    Yes, but — OK, I think they're hated because they have beaten your team, they have beaten your team's rival, they have just beaten everyone.

    And you mentioned Nick Saban's championships at Alabama. He won one at LSU. This means he has six national titles in a time — he's compared to Bear Bryant, the other greatest coach in college football. And to even mention them in the same breath tells you what I think of them.

    But he's doing this at a time when it is harder for him, just in terms of the number of scholarships he has and the strength of the competition. It is comparatively harder for him than it was maybe for a Paul "Bear" Bryant of Alabama.

    It almost seems like sacrilege to say. There are a couple of coaches in football, Lombardi and Bear Bryant, who you don't even think of possibly having flaws. You just think of them on Mount Rushmore. But Nick Saban in college, and maybe Bill Belichick in the NFL, are two coaches who are so good, their names should be said in the same breath as those legends.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But just in our last minute, just to push back here, because the criticism is maybe because they beat my team or the other people that didn't like them.

    But also you can't really talk about an Alabama without talking about sort of the money in the sport, almost to professional type of program.

  • Mike Pesca:

    But this is true of the competition.

    Nick Saban is highly remunerated, but that's because college football makes a ton of money. I think he's playing within the rules. He doesn't have NCAA violations, like so many of his rivals.

    So, I think that to judge him by that standard would be unfair. There's a phrase, don't hate the player, hate the game. I would say, don't hate the coach, hate the game.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And, briefly, Mike, I think we're in like the fourth year of the college playoff.

    What is your feeling about how it's working?

  • Mike Pesca:

    It's excellent. It delivers a greater version of justice than letting some sportswriters decide.

    That said, there was an undefeated team, University of Central Florida, who, if I were them, I might be looking at Alabama, saying, we want you guys. Let's schedule a game.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right. That's for next year.

    Mike Pesca, thanks so much.

  • Mike Pesca:

    You're welcome.

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