Henning: Saban shows why he's nation's best coach

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Nick Saban is expected to have another bountiful recruiting class at Alabama.

Dallas – Better players make better coaches, which is the not-so-creative advertising jingle from Thursday night's Cotton Bowl carnage at AT&T Stadium, where Alabama eviscerated Michigan State, 38-0.

All along, that figured to be the difference in what proved to be a New Year's Eve college football semifinals slaughter.

Players. There were more good players, at more positions, on the Alabama side than the Spartans could ever realistically offer in college football's version of a basketball-caliber Final Four showdown.

"It's a Catch-22 situation," said Mark Dantonio, the Spartans coach who knew how good Alabama was, but who had thought – maybe overly optimistically – his team could match the bludgeoning Alabama was sure to unleash Thursday.

"You've got pass-run conflicts," Dantonio said, meaning, in effect, MSU could pick its poison Thursday.

The Spartans could stop Heisman Trophy runner Derrick Henry and take their chances with quarterback Jake Coker. Or, they could back away from Henry, invest some tighter coverage on Alabama's receivers, and hope MSU's wondrous defensive front could handle a running back who might as well run next May in the Kentucky Derby.

Some choice.

The score grew so bloody that a few folks, no doubt, were left wondering if maybe New Year's Eve party hats and a couple of splashes at a nearby watering hole might yet be a better option than pretending a football game that doubled as a massacre was watchable.

There, again, was your difference, condensed: talent and depth galore on Alabama's gifted football roster that MSU couldn't realistically match.

Closer to fifth title

But if you care also to say Nick Saban is the perfect coach to oversee skills on the Crimson Tide's lofty level, that's also permissible. Because there is no finer college football coach in the country. By the time a 64-year-old wizard has added a fifth national championship to his personal vault, which will happen if 'Bama beats Clemson on Jan. 11, he could be on his way to status as the modern day's best-ever college football steward.

Saban is regarded as extraordinary for sundry reasons. But opposing coaches will tell you – as Dantonio might – that no one is tougher to beat than Saban when he has extra time to craft a game plan and mentally re-wire his players.

Wojo: Spartans smacked with reality they're not yet elite

He had that time in prepping nearly four weeks for Michigan State.

A man who is fixated on football psychology also had a motive for re-branding a football team that last year lost to Ohio State in the first-ever college football playoff.

Saban thought his Crimson Tide a year ago were distracted and unfocused. He could see college kids treating their semifinal game against the Buckeyes as if it were a typical postseason bowl game.

He sensed, too, that various players had one eye on the upcoming NFL draft rather than on wrapping up, with Alabama's normal aplomb, a championship season.

He wasn't going to allow a repeat as December and January offered Alabama a lovely shot at one more Waterford-crystal trophy.

"I think last year, when we came to this game, we were happy just to take part in the game," Saban said afterward, sitting at an interview dais alongside his quarterback, Jake Coker, and his two-way star, Cyrus Jones, who Thursday ran back a punt for a touchdown and destroyed a first-half MSU drive with an end-zone interception.

"The focus they had for this game was completely different than we ever had before."

Winning moves

Saban also did Thursday what too few teams had seemed to sufficiently consider against the Spartans during their fairly magical autumn that saw them go 12-1 and win the Big Ten championship.

He attacked their secondary, in particular their safeties, which had been a problem for too much of 2015.

He tucked Crimson Tide receiver Calvin Ridley into a slot position, off the line of scrimmage. It forced cornerbacks to stick with the outside horses and leave MSU's hit-and-miss safeties to handle Ridley.

Among the sad results for MSU was a prize-winning night for Coker, who finished with 286 yards and two touchdowns after making good on 25-of-30 passes.

Saban was polite but to the point.

"I think that the way they play when you catch them in certain coverage," he said, "their safeties ended up having to cover a guy in the slot.

"You know, we had one (receiver) open before. And I just said: 'We're going to go back to that and make their safeties cover our guys in the slot.' The next time we did it and made a big play.

"And I think that was the momentum swing. We also hit it several more times in the game."

This isn't anything other coaches, Dantonio included, don't see and adjust to during any college football game any season.

Rather, in the case of Alabama, it ends up so often as a lethal 1-2 punch to opposing teams. Good players allow good coaches to see and to execute.

And to win.

Good luck, Clemson, on Jan. 11.

Saban has 10 days to prepare.

Above all, he has 10 days to prepare players who tend, so often under his watch, to win college football's grandest and most glorious national prize.