Sweet 16 is inside story of the Alabama’s magical 2015 football season and triumphs over Michigan State and Clemson to capture the College Football Playoff National Championship. Featuring stunning action photography and expert analysis from author Christopher Walsh, this is the definitive account of Alabama’s 16th national championship.
There was no holding back the Crimson Tide in 2015. Alabama’s triumph in Arizona capped a 14-1 campaign. Behind Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry and the nation’s top defense, Coach Nick Saban’s team overcame a Week 3 loss to Ole Miss and emerged as the top team in the SEC, posting statement wins over three Top 10 opponents in conference play before topping Florida in the SEC Championship Game. That win earned Alabama a spot in the College Football playoff for the second year in a row. Alabama avenged a loss to Ohio State in the semifinal a year earlier, throttling Michigan State 38-0 to set up the matchup with Clemson.
Sweet 16 takes fans through Alabama’s exciting journey. From the season-opening victory over Wisconsin to dominant wins over Georgia and LSU to the to the nail-biting drama of the College Football Playoff, this commemorative edition includes profiles of Henry, quarterback Jake Coker, linebacker Reggie Ragland, and other Alabama Stars. Also featuring a foreword by The Voice of Alabama Football, Eli Gold, Sweet 16 is the perfect book for Alabama fans.
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About the Author
Christopher Walsh has been an award-winning sportswriter since 1990. He’s been twice nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, won three Football Writers Association of America awards, and received both the 2006 and 2014 Herby Kirby Memorial Award from the Alabama Sports Writers Association. He is the author of more than 20 sports books including Nick Saban vs. College Football: The Case for College Football's Greatest Coach and 100 Things Crimson Tide Fans Need to Know & Do Before They Die. He currently writes for Bleacher Report and resides in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Eli Gold has been The Voice of the Crimson Tide for nearly 30 years. Eli is also the host of NASCAR Live, a weekly, nationally syndicated radio call-in show. In addition, Gold's broadcasting credits include play-by-play for NFL, Arena Football League, and NHL games on radio and television.
Read an Excerpt
Alabama's Historic 2015 Championship Season
By Joe Funk
Triumph Books LLCCopyright © 2016 Triumph Books LLC
All rights reserved.
College Football Playoff National Championship
Alabama 45, Clemson 40
January 11, 2016 Glendale, Arizona
Call of a Lifetime
Onside Kick Turns the Tide in Fourth-Quarter Comeback
There were a little under 11 minutes remaining on the clock of the National Championship Game and the University of Alabama had just tied the score when Nick Saban made the call of a lifetime.
With Alabama struggling to stop Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson and the momentum up for grabs, Saban called for an onside kick in hopes of catching the Tigers by surprise.
It did more than that.
With junior kicker Adam Griffith striking the ball perfectly and redshirt freshman Marlon Humphrey racing to catch it before anyone from the other side could make a play on it, Alabama recovered and went on to survive a wild 45-40 victory at University of Phoenix Stadium for its 16th national championship.
And oh, how sweet it was.
"This is my — I hate to say it — favorite team because I love 'em all," Saban said. "These guys have come so far and have done so much. Their will, their spirit to compete and do the kind of kind of things they needed to do to be the kind of team they could be, I'm happy for them.
"This is all about winning a game for them. It's great for our fans. It's great for the state of Alabama, but I wanted to win this game for these guys."
With it the debate can really begin about if Saban is the greatest coach in college football history, and if Alabama's ongoing dynasty is the best the game has ever seen. The crown was Saban's fifth, his fourth with the Crimson Tide, and Alabama became the first program during the modern era to win four titles over a seven-year span.
Paul W. "Bear" Bryant won six national championships at Alabama, yet three were split titles, and the school claims the 1973 team that lost the No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup with Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl.
Saban's only split title was in 2003, when the Associated Press and Football Writers Association of America both voted Southern California No. 1. However, LSU won the game that mattered most, against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, and took home the crystal football.
Additionally, this was Saban's sixth victory against a team ranked No. 1, while no one else in college football history has more than four (Lou Holtz, Jimmy Johnson, and Jack Mollenkopf with four; Bryant had three). Alabama extended its streak of being No. 1 at some point in a season to an incredible eight years, and it became the first team in college football history to beat nine ranked opponents en route to a title.
Regardless, after both semifinal games were blowouts the championship more than made up for it and will go down as one of the best title games ever played. The two teams combined for 1,023 yards and it still went down to the very last play.
Junior running back Derrick Henry rushed for 158 yards on 36 carries and scored three touchdowns while becoming Alabama's all-time leading rusher.
Despite being sacked five times senior quarterback Jake Coker had a career high 335 yards on 16 of 25 attempts, and no turnovers.
Overshadowing both was the game's offensive MVP, junior tight end O.J. Howard, who had a historic performance with five receptions for 208 yards and touchdowns of 51 and 53 yards.
"O.J., quite honestly, should have been more involved all year long," Saban said. "Sometimes he was open and we didn't get him the ball, but I think the last two games have been breakout games for him in terms of what he's capable of and what he can do.
"I would say that it's bad coaching on my part that he didn't have the opportunity to do that all year long."
But Saban's decision to go for the onside kick was the one most people were talking about afterward. Many of the Crimson Tide players said it the gutsiest call they'd ever seen.
"That was amazing," senior wide receiver Richard Mullaney said.
Alabama had actually been practicing it since Week 3 of the season. When Saban saw how Clemson lined up after Henry opened the scoring with a 50-yard touchdown run he knew it would be an option in the game and waited for the best opportunity.
How many coaches would call it in the fourth quarter with everything on the line?
"It was just a matter of Adam Griffth kicking the ball to the right spot, and us not being offside," said special-teams coach Bobby Williams, who estimated that the play's success rate during practices was about "50-50."
"I almost dropped the ball almost every time," Humphrey said about the misses.
Nevertheless, it helped give Alabama the momentum for good, especially after Howard subsequently scored his 51-yard touchdown for the lead the Crimson Tide would never relinquish.
Although it struggled to slow Watson, who compiled 478 (405 passing and 73 rushing) of his team's 550 total yards, it eventually did just enough.
Safety Eddie Jackson, named the defensive player of the game, picked Watson off in the second quarter to set up Alabama's second touchdown, and freshman safety Ronnie Harrison prevented one with a clutch deflection of a pass into the end zone.
Overall, Alabama accumulated seven tackles for a loss, including two sacks, and broke up seven passes, but the victory took absolutely everything Alabama had. That included a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by senior Kenyan Drake, and junior defensive linemen A'Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed serving as fullbacks to help Henry punch in his final score, a 1-yard touchdown dive.
"I'm exhausted," Coker said after lighting up a victory cigar with teammates in the locker room. "We had to earn it, that's for sure."
It was a fitting end for this game and this season, against a team coached by former Alabama player Dabo Swinney. He was known for saying "Bring your own guts," and Clemson certainly did, against the team that appropriately had an elephant mascot.
"We didn't always play pretty in this game," Saban said. "It probably wasn't one of our best games when it comes to flat execution. But when it comes to competing and making plays when we needed to make them, it was probably as good as it gets.
"I think that's the kind of competitors that win championships, and that's probably why we're sitting here [with the trophy]."CHAPTER 2
O.J. Howard, MVP
'It Felt Like a Dream'
O.J. Howard Catches 2 TDs, Takes Offensive MVP Honors
It was as if the entire University of Alabama fan base briefly said "Finally!" while still trying to hold its collective breath until the very end of the National Championship Game.
O.J. Howard, who despite his 6-foot-6 frame and obvious top-notch receiving skills had previously only made 33 receptions for 394 yards during the 2015-16 season, and hadn't been in the end zone since his freshman year.
That promptly came to an end in a big way, on college football's biggest stage. Not only did the junior tight end score a 51-yard touchdown, but added a 53-yard score while having an unforgettable night.
"Initially it felt like a dream and I tried to tell everybody to wake me up because I thought it wasn't real," Howard said. "It was just a great feeling to get in the end zone again."
Howard eventually finished with five receptions for 208 yards, which set Alabama records for receiving yards by a tight end in a game and receiving yards by anyone in a bowl game (previously held by Ray Perkins, 178 vs. Nebraska in the 1967 Sugar Bowl).
Consequently, he was named the game's offensive MVP, while junior safety Eddie Jackson earned the defensive honor after making his sixth interception of the season.
Although junior running back Derrick Henry finished with 158 rushing yards on 36 carries and three touchdowns, Alabama knew going in that it would need more than a big-time performance from the Heisman Trophy winner to win.
Saban called it "big-little" game, in that Clemson's defense was the kind in which Alabama's offense would have some negative plays (although didn't anticipate having so many), but it would also have the chance to get some playmakers into open space.
"I thought we would be able to make some big plays in this game," he said.
Noticing the Clemson players sometimes needed a while to get lined up as they wanted, part of Alabama's strategy was to go hurry-up. The result was that the Tigers could get into formation, but then would not be able to make adjustments before the snap.
It especially helped Howard get open.
He was essentially left uncovered on both touchdowns, the first giving Alabama its initial lead at 21-14 early in the second half, and the second helping the Crimson Tide pull ahead for good in the fourth quarter, 31-24.
"No safety was over the top," Howard said about the long sideline pass. "I kind of knew that one was going to be open."
Actually, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin was seen raising his arms for the touchdown as senior quarterback Jake Coker, who had a career-high 335 passing yards on just 16 completions (but no turnovers), released the ball down field.
"We needed that big time," Coker said about the first touchdown, as Saban had noted during his halftime interview that his quarterback was holding on to the ball too long.
"The second one was just the exact same play from last week against Michigan State," Howard said about his 41-yard completion while contributing to the 38-0 victory in the Cotton Bowl. "This time I took the middle of the field, nobody was in the middle and it was wide open. Just a great play call by Coach Kiffin."
But Howard's biggest play may have been the 63-yard catch-and-go to set up Alabama's final touchdown, a 1-yard Henry dive that all but put the game out of reach.
"Some of those plays were fast plays," Kiffin said. "We were trying to use that to our advantage and some of our guys were able to make plays."
It wasn't until after Clemson rallied for a final last-minute touchdown and the subsequent onside kick went out of bounds that both coaches and Howard could finally exhale and begin the celebration for its 16th national championship. The game had been that tight.
"This is what we stood up and said at the beginning of the season," Howard said. "We wanted to come out and win a national championship and our team fought hard for that. I'm just so proud of our team, and no team deserved this more than we do."CHAPTER 3
70 | Offensive Lineman
Third-Year Starter Anchors Nation's Best Offensive Line
Ryan Kelly had heard it before. Being a third-year starter and in his fifth season at the University of Alabama there wasn't much that could classify as being new anymore.
But when strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran said what he always tells all the seniors on their first day of training camp it got the center thinking.
This was the last time he would be going through the first day of practice with the Crimson Tide, just like he went through the final spring, A-Day, and summer. Every senior at every school goes through something similar, although the word legacy carries some extra weight at a place like Alabama.
"Every day that goes by is the last time you're going to do something," he said. "It's unbelievable how fast the time goes by. My parents always tell me it's only gonna go by faster. (I'm) taking advantage of it, just cherishing every moment I have."
That included SEC Media Days in July, when Kelly was one of three players to represent the Crimson Tide, and on Alabama's Fan Day when he helped lead teammates through drills. They're the kind of honors and responsibilities that often go to the captains at the end of the season, and sure enough he eventually landed that honor.
"Ryan Kelly's great," senior running back Kenyan Drake said. "He's definitely the brick of that offensive line. We definitely need him moving forward in our process of becoming champions again because he is a perfect part in our offensive line and also a senior."
Actually, with sophomore left tackle Cam Robinson the only other returning starter, Kelly was the lone established veteran of the offense. After taking over for Barrett Jones in 2013 he had Arie and Cyrus Kouandjio to his left, with Austin Shepherd and Anthony Steen on his right.
Those other four all spent the 2015 summer in NFL training camps, as did Jones. Meanwhile, Alabama had set a new standard at the center position as every starter since Saban arrived in 2007 — including Antoine Caldwell, William Vlachos, and Jones — was named an All-American.
"It's cliché here, but it is the process," Kelly said. "Everyone wants to talk about it, but it's the real thing. No matter who you bring in we aren't going to change our standards for who you are. This is the 'Bama Way. This is a special place. It's not for everybody to come to.
"I think that is one of the biggest things Coach [Nick] Saban has drilled in is that if you come here, you are a part of something bigger than you. Every guy who has had success here has partaken in that. All the success, the way he recruits — you can't get around [the process], the hard work, the dedication, and he's taught me to be a good person as well."
Although center is considered an important position on any football team there's a lot more to it than snapping the ball and making a block. In addition to being responsible for the line calls he's the one guy other than the quarterback who has to know absolutely everything, from the entire playbook to what personnel the opposition prefers to have on the field when it blitzes.
"Almost all of the best offensive lines that I've seen have an anchor, an experienced center who knows what he's doing, who's on the same page as the quarterback, same wavelength, who knows what's going to happen before it happens," Jones said. "It's important that he's a confident guy who doesn't just kind of guess. When he makes a call, guys know that's the right call, and guys get on the same page."
That's why coaches consider experience at the position to be a cherished commodity, and was the key to Jones moving from left tackle to replace Vlachos after winning the Outland Trophy (best interior lineman) in 2011.
While Kelly never had to switch positions it didn't mean he couldn't have played elsewhere on the line.
"If you can play center you can play anywhere because you know the whole offense," said reserve Bradley Bozeman, who emerged to be the backup center as a freshman in 2014 and filled in for two starts after Kelly had a sprained knee at Ole Miss.
"We watched film and he helped me through it. Gave me tweaks too. The whole year we prepared for that situation, so when he went down and I came in he had my back."
Robinson got similar help from Kelly when he started at left tackle as a true freshman, just like with the three new starters on the line in 2015: Dominick Jackson, Alphonse Taylor, and Ross Pierschbacher — who told reporters as a redshirt freshman guard "Hopefully, I can be as good as Ryan Kelly someday."
Together the five won the inaugural Joe Moore Award as the best offensive line in college football, and a trophy so big that it made Derrick Henry's Heisman Trophy look tiny in comparison.
While the running back ended up sweeping the major national player of the year honors including the Maxwell and Walter Camp awards, and was clearly Alabama's best player in 2015-16, Kelly may have been just as valuable to the Crimson Tide.
"I'm not going to say he's the MVP of the offense, but I will say that center position is so important in college, especially when you're in an up-tempo offense and doing so much at the line of scrimmage," said Jones, who won the 2012 Rimington Award as the nation's best center.
"It's so vital. His leadership, it's hard to characterize how important it is. I think he's invaluable, and I think he's had a great year so far."
When postseason accolades were being considered Kelly had graded about 84 percent in all games, with five games above 90 percent. He had yielded just four quarterback hurries and no sacks while making 16 knockdown blocks.
That landed him the program's second Rimington Trophy along with consensus All-American status.
"Ryan is like the key to the offensive line," Robinson said. "He's the reason everything goes the way it goes. He's extremely important to what we do as a unit, and he's kind of like the heart and soul.
"My appreciation for Ryan Kelly is through the roof."CHAPTER 4
Alabama vs. Wisconsin
Alabama 35, Wisconsin 17
September 5, 2015 Arlington, Texas
Tide Roll Over Badgers behind RB's 3 TDs
Release the beast.
That's what the University of Alabama football team did during its season-opening marquee matchup with Wisconsin at AT&T Stadium. Junior running back Derrick Henry may have only touched the ball 15 times, but he certainly made the most of them while accumulating 159 all-purpose yards and scoring three touchdowns.
Excerpted from Sweet 16 by Joe Funk. Copyright © 2016 Triumph Books LLC. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Foreword by Eli Gold,
College Football Playoff National Championship,
O.J. Howard, MVP,
Alabama vs. Wisconsin,
Alabama vs. Middle Tennessee State,
Alabama vs. Ole Miss,
Alabama vs. Louisiana-Monroe,
Alabama vs. Georgia,
Alabama vs. Arkansas,
Alabama vs. Texas A&M,
Alabama vs. Tennessee,
Remembering Kenny Stabler,
Alabama vs. LSU,
Alabama vs. Mississippi State,
Alabama's Unsung Heroes,
Alabama vs. Charleston Southern,
Iron Bowl vs. Auburn,
SEC Championship Game vs. Florida,
Cotton Bowl vs. Michigan State,