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When Nick Saban of Alabama and Tommy Bowden of Clemson met at mid-field of the Georgia Dome floor before the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Classic Saturday, one coach was leading a top ten team, while the other was in the process of getting his team there. When they shook hands following the game, you could say that the two had reversed roles.
Alabama appeared to be the team that belonged in the top 10, while the Tigers seemed to have much work to do. The game was unbalanced (Saban's Tide dominated by playing a physical brand of football) and over quickly (Alabama went up 23-3 in the first half). Clemson had no answer for the Tide's rushing game, and the rushing tandem it boasted in Jams Davis and CJ Spiller ended the night with 0 (zero) yards rushing. Zero.
Bowden, in his tenth season, and Saban, in his second season, will return to their respective camps to very different greetings. Tuscaloosa is Saban-nation at the moment, with fans quickly understanding why their athletic department splurged on the high-dollar head-man. Bowden, meanwhile, is not so popular in Clemson at the moment. He, too, was the king of his town in his second year at Clemson, guiding the Tigers to their first winning record in three seasons in 2000 after a .500 mark his first year. But after ten years of ups and downs, and no ACC title, fans are now realizing this may not be the right man for the job. And a loss like this, to a storied SEC program, on national TV, with a huge build-up, is embarassing to Clemson alumni and die-hards.
Saban was predicted to get the Tide back in the national spotlight, but most thought year two may be a little quick - and one win over a 9th ranked team does not make you "back" by any means. But the most important thing Saban did was have his team ready to play emotionally. Alabama came out of the tunnel excited, ready to make a point about something in this game. Clemson, who really had more of a point to make than their opponent (about being a legit top 10 team), came out flat and played unorganized and uninspired.
And there, to me, is the difference in a national championship caliber coach and a coach who is not. The Tigers have more talent than Alabama, but Nick Saban got his players to play to the best of their abilites when the nation was watching. Bowden, in this huge game, somehow allowed his players to come out flat.
Many programs would be lucky to have Tommy Bowden. The man is an asset to his community, his players stay out of trouble as well as any school in the nation, and he recruits top-notch athletes that are of good character. He also has a pretty solid career winning percentage. But Bowden is what he is, and what he is is a coach who has a hard time on gameday. He doesn't motivate, and his play calling in big games (he has the final word Rob Spence haters) has always been questionable. And despite his solid 8 to 9 wins per year, Bowden may not ever surpass that. He could still win the ACC this year and also could reach ten wins, but that isn't the point. The point is that in this big-time game, his tenth Tiger team lost embarassingly to a team they may not get another crack at for years and years to come. Bowden's seat is on fire as it is hard to say that his program even belongs in the top 25.
Saban, meanwhile, can take advantage of the huge win for recruiting. High-school kids nationwide were watching this game, and as good as the coach is in the living room, don't be surprised if Alabama doesn't bring home the best group of recruits in America once again in 2009. The SEC slate will be tough, and the Tide will lose a few games, but let it be known: Saban has it going on, and his program is on the rise.
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