The Associated Press
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - Nick Saban showed he's capable of derring-do in Alabama's past two national championship game wins.
The coach famed for his scowl, his process and meticulous down-to-the-tiniest detail nature - even eating the same salad daily for lunch and, of course, oatmeal creme pies for breakfast - has turned title games in the Crimson Tide's favor with two gutsy calls.
When thinking of Saban, a gambler or risk taker isn't the first thing that comes to mind.
But when the time is right, the coach has stepped outside the box. In January 2016, Saban's fourth-quarter onside kick call propelled Alabama on to a 45-40 win over Clemson by not only setting up a touchdown drive but keeping Deshaun Watson & Co. off the field.
Last season, he brought in freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa for the second half to rally the Crimson Tide from a 13-0 deficit against Georgia, benching two-year starter Jalen Hurts.
The Tide and Tigers, both 14-0, meet again Monday night in Santa Clara, California, with the national title on the line.
Don't be shocked if Saban gambles - or at least takes a calculated risk - at some point. Anything to tilt the game in his favor.
"Well, I think when you're playing against a very good team and you anticipate that it's going to be a really tight game, that you're always looking for somewhere or someplace in the game where you can create an advantage for yourself and try to put your players in the best position to have a chance to be successful," Saban said. "You know, I think we do that for every game, but I think when you play in games like this, sometimes those plays can have a huge impact because it's probably going to be a pretty close game."
Three seasons ago, Alabama had just tied Clemson at 24 with a field goal when Marlon Humphrey collected Adam Griffith's onside kick at midfield. Two plays later, Jake Coker hit tight end O.J. Howard for a 51-yard touchdown and Alabama took the lead for the duration.
Clemson tight end Milan Richard was on the field with the kick return unit.
"We weren't expecting it," Richard said. "The way we were lined up, they tried to take advantage of it and it worked. It's something we'll be ready for, something we came back and prepared for and we'll try not to let happen again."
Tigers left tackle Mitch Hyatt felt like his team had the momentum before that onside kick. Watson and the Tigers' offense certainly were looking all but unstoppable.
That made Saban's timing so perfect.
"We knew if we just got the ball, we would go and win the game," Hyatt said. "The onside kick just really turned that game around."
The Tigers weren't the only surprised ones. Alabama offensive lineman Jonah Williams was a newly arrived freshman watching from Bryant Hall back in Tuscaloosa.
"Yeah, it was crazy," said Williams, now a unanimous All-American. "Me and all the early enrollees were in Bryant watching it on TV and we were just freaking out when it happened, because that was such a momentum swing in the game. That's the type of thing that this game takes.
"When you're playing great teams, sometimes you have to take risks. And when you do, you have to execute them. And sometimes that's the difference-maker in the game."
Maybe switching to Tagovailoa now seems like a no-brainer considering how poorly Alabama's offense was playing against Georgia and that he wound up being a Heisman Trophy runner-up some 11 months later. But Hurts had done little but win since claiming the starting job - and Southeastern Conference offensive player of the year honors - as a freshman.
Alabama's offense had produced just 94 yards in the first half and trailed Georgia 13-0 when Saban made the quarterback switch. Tagovailoa wound up passing for 166 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winner to DeVonta Smith in overtime.
Afterward, Saban said he didn't think the Tide could run the ball well enough to overcome the struggling passing game and lack of big plays.
"I thought Tua would give us a better chance and a spark, which he certainly did," the coach said following the game.
Alabama doesn't take many gambles like that onside kick against Clemson, the Tide doesn't need them all that often. Certainly not this season, when Alabama was scarcely challenged until the SEC championship game against Georgia.
Alabama jumped ahead of Oklahoma 28-0 in the first 17 minutes of the semifinal game last Saturday, winning 45-34.
The Tide philosophy can best be described as, Trust in Nick. He has won six national titles - five at Alabama - after all.
"He's the greatest coach of all time," Williams said. "He coaches the games the way that he should, the way that he's (able) to win all these games. So we just trust him, and if he thinks that it's a smart, calculated risk, then we just go with it."
THE MATCHUPS: Clemson and Alabama are playing in the College Football Playoff for the fourth straight season, and the third time for the national championship.
The winner Monday will become the first 15-0 FBS champion.
With the help of SEC Network analyst Cole Cubelic, a former Auburn offensive lineman, a breakdown of some of the key matchups that could decide Tide-Tigers Part IV.
CLEMSON ON LINE
There are few one-on-one matchups where Alabama is ever going to be at a disadvantage. Clemson's defensive line might be good enough to capitalize on some small vulnerability even without suspended 340-pound run stuffer Dexter Lawrence.
Tigers All-America defensive tackle Christian Wilkins against Alabama left guard Lester Cotton is a place where the Tigers can win one-on-one.
"Wilkins is a player who has really good quickness inside. Could be very disruptive against a player who was benched in the middle of the season for a younger player that came in and sort of took his spot and is now suspended and not going to play," Cubelic said.
Deonte Brown was suspended for an undisclosed NCAA violation, Alabama coach Nick Saban has said.
Alabama right tackle Jedrick Wills has occasionally had some problems in pass protection. The Tide might need to provide some help for the sophomore to deal with Clemson's defensive ends, whether it's All-American Clelin Ferrell, Cotton Bowl defensive MVP Austin Bryant or freshman Xavier Thomas, who looks like Clemson's next great pass rusher.
Clemson leads the nation with 52 sacks, led by Ferrell with 111/2 and Bryant with eight, including two against Notre Dame. The Tigers also lead the nation in yards per play allowed at 4.05.
Cubelic said he would expect Clemson to rely on the defensive line to hold its own against the run and commit more players to coverage. It sounds weird to say of Alabama, but challenging this Tide team to run the ball is probably the way to go.
"They're kind of greedy," Cubelic said of Alabama's offense, led by quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. "They know they're really good throwing the ball. They know they have an elite quarterback and elite wide receivers. Why not go out there and pitch it around?"
Tagovailoa, the Heisman runner-up, has a 205.19 passer efficiency rating, which would break Baker Mayfield's single-season record from last year.
Senior Albert Huggins played well filling in for Lawrence against Notre Dame, but the junior is more likely to be missed this week.
"He's probably one of the best linemen in college football, no doubt, in terms of his production and his performance," Saban said. "He's played really well against us in the past."
If there was a defensive player with a case to the win the Heisman Trophy this season, Alabama's Quinnen Williams was the guy. He has hardly been slowed down and it's doubtful Clemson center Justin Falcinelli, an All-ACC player, and guards John Simpson, Gage Cervenka and Sean Pollard will be a physical match for the future top-five NFL draft pick.
Williams, an All-American and Outland Trophy winner, plays differently than the recent dominant Tide nose guards such as Terrence Cody and Daron Payne. Williams often lines up in one gap, and then shoots into another gap or works his way from one shoulder of a blocker to the other. Clemson uses a lot of zone- and gap-blocking schemes, where its linemen are assigned to block a particular space rather than a man.
"The scheme is not very friendly to handle not only a guy as talented as Quinnen Williams, but the way he plays," Cubelic said.
The 295-pound Williams had 18 tackles for loss, including eight sacks.
FLUSTERING THE FRESHMAN
Clemson freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence has all the physical gifts. From that standpoint, he is ready for Alabama. The challenge against the Tide for Lawrence will be as much mental as physical.
Alabama's overwhelming talent sometimes overshadows just how well-coached the players are. The Tide doesn't make many mistakes and Saban's defenses throw a lot at quarterbacks.
"The windows are going to close faster," Cubelic said. "The pressure is going to be applied more quickly. The decisions are going to have to be made faster."
Lawrence has completed 65.5 percent of his passes, with 27 touchdown passes and only four interceptions.
An underrated part of Lawrence's game is his mobility, but he hasn't used it much until late in the season. He has 86 yards on 10 carries in the last three regular-season games. Swinney said he'd like to see Lawrence take off more.
"Sometimes people will drop and play coverage and receivers will have to work and work and work to try to get open and he's confident he can rip it there," Swinney said.
Because Alabama is so good up front with Williams, Raekwon Davis and Isaiah Buggs (team-high 9.5 sacks), it is likely Lawrence will see a lot of seven- and eight-man coverage and get some opportunities to run.
"If Alabama is going to give you anything, you damn well better take it," Cubelic said.
Alabama's excellent pass rush has helped bring along a secondary that relies on talented but inexperienced corners such as freshman Patrick Surtain.
"I don't know how good the Alabama secondary is," Cubelic said. "And I don't think anybody else really knows."
Clemson has a versatile group of receivers with Tee Higgins (11 touchdowns) and Justyn Ross (eight touchdowns) both checking in at 6-foot-4, Amari Rogers (four touchdowns), who is built like a running back, and senior Hunter Renfrow, who has scored four touchdowns in two previous championship games against Alabama.