As Alabama coach Nick Saban spends the next few weeks and months reflecting on his first loss in a national championship game, we might wonder if he overreacted in forcing out former offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin and replacing him with Steve Sarkisian only a week before the game.
It was the biggest "woulda, coulda, shoulda" of Saban's illustrious career, and it was one of the most stunning moves in what has been a "process" built on thoughtful, calculated decisions.
Did Saban make the right choice in letting Kiffin go before the Crimson Tide played the biggest game of the season? Saban already was worried that Kiffin had one foot out the door when he was named Florida Atlantic's new head coach last month. He was recruiting for the Owls and interviewing coaches as he worked to assemble his FAU staff.
After Alabama's offense looked shaky in a 24-7 victory over Washington in a CFP semifinal on New Year's Eve, Saban knew something had to be done -- even if it was a risky and largely unprecedented decision.
While the decision to go with Sarkisian, who already had been named Kiffin's successor for next season, didn't result in a victory over Clemson, it was still the right move, despite the 35-31 loss in Monday night's College Football Playoff National Championship.
Alabama scored 31 points against a Clemson defense that shut out Ohio State in a CFP semifinal. Behind tailback Bo Scarbrough's two touchdown runs, the Tide built an early 14-0 lead and led 24-14 entering the fourth quarter.
Going into Monday night's game, Alabama was 106-6 in games it led at the half and a perfect 96-0 when it entered the fourth quarter with a double-digit lead. Sarkisian protected the lead and the offense didn't make a big mistake to put it in jeopardy.
In the end, Alabama didn't lose to Clemson because Sarkisian was calling offensive plays while Kiffin was watching and tweeting about the game in his sweatpants in Boca Raton, Florida.
"I think we had some drops. I think we had some tipped balls. I think there were things we could have done better, but I thought the preparation was good," Saban said. "I thought our organization was good, and I thought we gave our players a chance in this game to have success.
"Was it challenging? Yes. Did everyone involved handle it extremely well? Absolutely."
The Crimson Tide lost the game because the Tigers had a much better and more experienced quarterback. Deshaun Watson, who will leave school as the greatest player in Clemson history, completed 36 of 56 passes for 420 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. He threw the winning 2-yard touchdown to Hunter Renfrow with one second left in one of the most dramatic endings in college football history.
Jalen Hurts, who was trying to become the first true freshman quarterback to win a national championship since Oklahoma's Jamelle Holieway in 1985, completed 13 of 31 passes for 131 yards with one touchdown.
For the second straight week, Hurts never looked comfortable in the pocket, and Clemson's defense was committed to stopping the run, especially after Scarbrough left the game in the second half with a right leg injury. Alabama ran the ball 21 times in the first half, 13 in the second.
After Scarbrough left, Alabama's best offense seemed to be having Hurts chuck the ball down the field and hope for a pass-interference call against the most-penalized secondary in the FBS. But he never gave Alabama's receivers a chance to draw a penalty because he overthrew the passes.
Behind Watson, tailback Wayne Gallman and its ultratalented receiver corps, Clemson outgained Alabama in total offense, 511 yards to 376. The Tigers ran 99 offensive plays to the Crimson Tide's 66. This season, Alabama averaged 70.4 plays on offense and the defense only faced 65.5 plays.
Worse, Alabama went 2-for-15 on third down and couldn't sustain a drive. The Tide defense, which already had its hands full with Watson and Clemson's up-tempo style, wore down because it was on the field far too often and far too long.
"We never really possessed the ball to keep our defense off the field," Sarkisian told ESPN's Chris Low after the game. "Ultimately, our drives were short. We scored quickly or we were off the field quickly and put our defense in a really difficult situation. The passing game was spotty. We thought we had some good stuff but couldn't sustain drives to get the momentum back in our favor.
"In the end, they ran almost 100 plays, and we ran in the mid-60s, and that's not a good formula for success against a really good team like Clemson."
But despite everything that went wrong -- Hurts playing like a freshman and Scarbrough spending much of the second half in a medical tent on the sideline -- Sarkisian still helped put Alabama in position to win the game.
With Alabama trailing 28-24 with less than three minutes left, Sarkisian called a trick play. Hurts lateraled to receiver ArDarius Stewart, who threw a 24-yard pass to tight end O.J. Howard. On the next play, Hurts broke free for a 30-yard touchdown run, which looked like it would be the indelible moment of one of the sport's greatest games.
But the Crimson Tide left more than two minutes on the clock, and Watson took his team 68 yards down the field to score.
"You go back and look at everything that you did and wish you could have done one more thing right, because that might have been the difference in the game, just one more play," Sarkisian said.
No, Alabama didn't lose because Sarkisian -- and not Kiffin -- was calling its offensive plays.
The Crimson Tide lost because the Tigers had better and more experienced players running their plays.