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Why Nick Saban teams are so good in big games

TAMPA, Fla. -- Good luck getting Nick Saban to share any of his secrets on why he has been so incredibly good on the biggest stages in his college football coaching career.

At Alabama, he's 11-2 in SEC championship, BCS national championship and College Football Playoff games. Throw in his 3-0 record at LSU -- the 2001 SEC championship win over Tennessee, 2003 SEC championship win over Georgia and 2003 BCS national championship win over Oklahoma -- and that's a glistening 14-2 record on championship stages.

"I don't even remember the ones that we won. What comes to my mind are the ones that we lost," Saban told ESPN.com recently in a wide-ranging interview.

It's the kind of answer that has come to define Saban and his program at Alabama, which is looking for its fifth national championship in the past eight years Monday night in a rematch with Clemson in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).

As much as anything, what has separated Alabama under Saban is the Crimson Tide's ability to consistently play their best football on the biggest of stages. They haven't always been perfect in getting there and have even had some help along the way. But once there, they have been money.

"It's the only thing we know," Alabama senior defensive end Jonathan Allen said. "We're playing against ourselves as much as we are anything, playing to a standard that's been around here for a long time. That doesn't change, and it's never going to change as long as Coach Saban is around. I don't know if that's a secret. It's just the way we do things, and it doesn't matter if it's the first game of the season or the national championship game."

Alabama has obviously done a lot of things right in those championship environments under Saban. The Crimson Tide have beaten eight top-five teams. Nine of their 11 wins were by double digits, and their average margin of victory in those 11 wins was a whopping 20.8 points.

But in vintage Saban fashion, his recollection of the Tide's dizzying run centers around what they didn't do right in their only two losses -- both to Urban Meyer-coached teams.

"I thought we played really poorly against Ohio State in the [2014] playoff," Saban said. "When we lost to Florida in the [2008] SEC championship, it was our second year and we kind of had a young team, and I thought we played our tail off in that game. They just made the plays they had to make down the stretch in the fourth quarter and we didn't."

Saban blames himself for the fact that the Tide didn't handle the playoff atmosphere as well as Meyer and Ohio State did in the 2014 semifinal, and he said that was evident in the game. Ohio State rallied from an early 21-6 deficit to win 42-35 in New Orleans.

"That first playoff game was a little bit odd with the transition," Saban said. "I didn't do a very good job with the players. You're going to a bowl game, but you're playing a playoff game. Everybody was maybe a little bit confused from our standpoint. How do you manage that? Whereas last year, it was a bowl game, but we were going to a playoff game. It wasn't like we were going to a bowl game."

Senior tight end O.J. Howard said there's an edge Alabama plays with that only intensifies during postseason practices. In fact, he said, some of the Tide's toughest practices of the season came during the lead-up to the first playoff game against Washington.

"The games are easy; a lot easier than some of our practices," Howard said. "We know when we get into a tough game in the second half that we're ready for anything. But it's like that in September, and it's like that now. Nothing changes just because we're in the playoff. The competition on our practice field doesn't waver. To me, that's where we get our edge."

And it doesn't hurt that Saban's success in championship games has a way of empowering his players. After all, he owns championship game or playoff wins over the likes of Mack Brown, Bob Stoops, Mark Dantonio, Les Miles, Phillip Fulmer, Dabo Swinney, Chris Petersen and Meyer.

"We know we've got one of the greatest coaches to ever coach on our sideline," Alabama senior linebacker Reuben Foster said. "He knows what buttons to push, and he knows when to push them."

One of the few close games Alabama has had in a championship game under Saban came last season against Clemson. The Tigers went toe-to-toe with the Tide and were leading entering the fourth quarter. But after an Alabama field goal tied the score at 24-24 with 10:34 to play, Saban made a decision that changed the complexion of the game.

He called for an onside kick that was perfectly executed. Alabama recovered, and Howard caught a 51-yard touchdown pass a few plays later that put the Crimson Tide ahead to stay.

"Look, the way that game was going, it was like a basketball game," Saban recalled. "If the game's tied and you've got the ball, that's a whole lot different than when the game's tied and the other team's got the ball. The game got tied, and I'm saying, 'I don't want to give the ball back to these guys right now.' So that's why we did what we did on the kick, but the kick was there. The way they lined up, we saw it."

So as soon as Saban saw Adam Griffith's field goal sail through the uprights to tie it, he didn't hesitate.

"We needed to change the possessions because we weren't stopping them," he said.

To perform as consistently well as Saban's teams have on big stages, you also need some luck. For instance, he points out that Alabama has typically been healthy going into the postseason.

"We've been fortunate around here to not lose a lot of players during the course of the year," Saban said. "This has been the most we've ever had, to lose two starters on defense and one on offense and two other guys who were backups who have a role. Last year, Robert Foster was the only guy. We've been fortunate to stay healthy and build."

But ultimately, Saban said, it's those teams that can focus and play in the moment that usually play their best football when the stakes are the highest.

"It still comes down to fundamental tackling, blocking, looking at the right thing, playing with the right discipline," he said. "The other team's going to have good players, no doubt, when you play in games like this, but it's still going to come down to execution.

"Most of the time, when you look at the film, it's what you didn't do, not what they did, that gets you beat."

Former Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, a teammate of Saban's at Kent State, said Saban is being too modest.

"It's crazy what he's done, almost miraculous," Pinkel said. "He gets the best players, but he gets those players to buy into his system and buy into the team. That's the key. They're playing for each other, not for themselves or for anybody else, and I think that's a big reason they're always playing so well in these kinds of games.

"His challenge now is he has to win all of his games, every single one of them and every single championship, but he's been brilliant in doing just that."

And this year, there's even a twist. Saban changed offensive coordinators the week before the game. He announced on Monday that Lane Kiffin was out, to concentrate fully on his Florida Atlantic head-coaching duties, and that Steve Sarkisian was in.

A gamble? Maybe so. But given Saban's record when championships have been at stake, does anybody really want to bet against him?