It was only a few days ago that Nick Saban mused about his Alabama football team and the idea of perfection.
Though the Crimson Tide were defending champions, had finished the regular season undefeated and were ranked No. 1, the coach refused to get too far ahead of himself.
“We know we can’t win every game,” Saban said. “And we can’t be perfect.”
Saturday night proved him right, as his team looked alternately dominant and vulnerable, racing to a big lead before holding onto a 45-34 victory over No. 4 Oklahoma in a playoff semifinal at the Orange Bowl.
The victory puts the Crimson Tide into the national championship against No. 2 Clemson on Jan. 7 — their fourth trip to the title game in the five-year history of the College Football Playoff.
It took some work getting there.
Saturday’s matchup featured the two highest-scoring offenses in the nation — both averaging just short of 50 points — but figured to hinge on defense. Namely, Alabama’s defense.
Not quite as dominant as in recent seasons, the Crimson Tide still ranked in the Top 10 nationally in categories ranging from yards allowed to team sacks.
“All their players can cover sideline-to-sideline … very fast,” Oklahoma running back Trey Sermon said. “And they’re very physical.”
The question was, could they slow a Sooners offense that was averaging 577.9 yards with Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray at quarterback?
At first, the answer was yes.
After Alabama scored on the opening drive, its pass rush got to Murray on two of the next three plays from scrimmage. Things didn’t go much better on Oklahoma’s ensuing possessions as Murray completed only one of five passes and the Sooners managed just 24 yards in the first quarter.
Meanwhile, the Crimson Tide offense was settling another pressing issue.
Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa had undergone a minor surgical procedure on his ankle immediately after the Southeastern Conference championship game and there were doubts about his ability to move in the pocket.
But the injury did not seem to hamper him in the slightest as he guided his team to touchdowns on each of the first four possessions.
There was a soft 10-yard pass to receiver Henry Ruggs III in the corner of the end zone for a 14-0 lead. Then a 40-yard completion to receiver Jerry Jeudy to fuel a drive that made the score 21-0.
Saban mixed things up, giving him a breather by inserting former starter Jalen Hurts on several plays. Tagovailoa even broke loose on a scramble as Alabama stretched its lead to 28-0.
It wasn’t until the second quarter that Oklahoma found a semblance of rhythm with Murray completing long passes to Carson Meier and CeeDee Lamb, setting up Sermon’s two-yard touchdown run.
The teams traded field goals after that, making the score 31-10 at halftime, but Saban knew the momentum had swung.
“We have to play better defense because these guys are capable of scoring fast,” he said. “They’ve got a lot of weapons out there, so we have to play better in the second half.”
Sure enough, the Sooners continued to surge through the third quarter, adding another field goal before Murray lofted a 49-yard touchdown pass to receiver Charleston Rambo, closing the gap to 31-20.
But even as Saban raged on the sideline and his team began to look nervous, committing penalties and blowing assignments, there was a problem for the Sooners.
They had arrived in South Florida with a defense that fell somewhere short of fierce, surrendering 32.4 points a game and looking especially susceptible to the pass.
Though showing recent glimpses of improvement, they were facing an Alabama offense almost as potent as their own.
So, with the lead cut to 11 points early in the fourth quarter, Tagovailoa calmly guided his team to another score.
It was a drive made of bruising runs and a short scramble. Then Tagovailoa completed a string of passes and finished with a 10-yard touchdown throw to DeVonta Smith.
The 38-20 lead provided just enough cushion because the scoring wasn’t finished, not with both teams driving up and down the field in the final minutes.
“Kind of a tale of two different games for us,” Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said. “I felt like we were going to win the football game despite going down 28-0.”
In the duel between Murray and Tagovailoa, who finished second in the Heisman balloting, the Alabama quarterback held a slight edge, completing 24 of 27 passes for 318 yards and four touchdowns.
Murray finished with 308 yards and two scores through the air. He also rushed for 109 yards and another touchdown. Oklahoma’s Lamb led all receivers with eight catches for 109 yards.
Things won’t get any easier for the Crimson Tide. The game Jan. 7 brings yet another championship matchup with unbeaten Clemson; the teams split a pair of title showdowns in recent years.
As Saban noted before Saturday’s game, even if his team wasn’t perfect, “we’re certainly trying to workevery day to close the gap.”
Follow @LAtimesWharton on Twitter