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Alabama improved by picking rival coach Tom Herman’s brain

Houston coach Tom Herman celebrates alongside the trophy

Houston coach Tom Herman celebrates alongside the trophy after the Cougars' 38-24 win over Florida State during the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl at the Georgia Dome on Dec. 31, 2015 in Atlanta. Credit: Getty Images / Kevin C. Cox

GLENDALE, Ariz. — One of the things that makes Alabama’s football program great is that coach Nick Saban is smart enough to know he doesn’t have all the answers. After the Crimson Tide’s 42-35 loss to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl semifinal of the College Football Playoff last season, Saban and his staff reached out to departing Buckeyes offensive coordinator Tom Herman to try to learn where they had gone wrong, and the lessons they learned helped Alabama reach Monday night’s championship game against No. 1 Clemson.

Shortly after Ohio State defeated Oregon for the inaugural CFP title, Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart called Herman, who had just been hired as the new head coach at the University of Houston. “It was especially embarrassing to get your butt beat that bad,” Smart said. “We’ve had that in the past, several [opponents] we’ve talked to. It’s harder in conference because they’re going to play you the next year. So they’re not going to share with you.”

Smart said it “was probably unfair” to ask Herman for his time while he was in the middle of making the transition to Houston. Having recently accepted the head-coaching job at Georgia, Smart now understands the time demands Herman must have been facing.

“I talked to him for a couple hours on the phone,” Smart said, “to find out what he thought about us defensively. What are our highest tendencies? What did you think was our weakness?”

After national letter-of-intent signing day last February, Saban went a step further, inviting Herman to Tuscaloosa for more extensive discussions. “He brought four or five coaches,” Smart said of Herman. “Our offense sat down with Tom Herman to try and gain some of his knowledge.”

So Herman’s information helped Saban and his staff make improvements on both sides of the ball. Asked to summarize what he learned on the defensive side from the loss to OSU, Smart said, “You’ve got to be able to run, you’ve got to be able to tackle in space, and you’ve got to get off the field on third down, which we didn’t do. We play against the spread offense more, so we practice it more. Now we have better, more athletic safeties and we have better, more athletic front guys. This is the most diverse defense we’ve had. In years past, we might have been too big or too small. We hit on a good mix this year.”

Of course, the ultimate test came against Clemson and dual-threat quarterback Deshaun Watson in the title game. And although Watson had a fine game, passing for 405 yards and four touchdowns, Alabama passed that test with flying colors in a 45-40 victory.

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