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A bar full of football coaches watches Bama get destroyed

Coach convention attendees know football better than the rest of us, but they were at least as surprised by the final score as you were.

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama Mark Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Almost every college football staff not playing for a national championship on Monday was at the AFCA (American Football Coaches Association) conference in San Antonio, Texas. It’s a four-day event with seminars and expos, and it’s also a spot for lots of job interviews. Both Troy and Temple, the FBS schools with currently open head coaching jobs, spoke to candidates here this week.

Most of that shuts down on Monday night for the national title game, where the smartest viewing audience you’ve ever seen gathers to watch the game.

Kind of like the Coaches Film Room that ESPN used to put together for title games, except with coaches sprawled all over San Antonio bars and ballrooms, rather than on a studio set.

It’s true that coaches are plugged in to these teams, but not in the way you might think.

They all have football expertise, and maybe they overlapped with certain personnel on the recruiting trail.

But their guesses as to who wins aren’t that much more educated than the rest of ours. A Power 5 staffer’s lunchtime prediction of a Clemson win is met with a refrain familiar to anyone who’s recently brought up the possibility that Alabama might not win.

“Really? No way man. I think Bama’s gonna kill ‘em.”

When asked why the dissent, the staffer shrugged and said, “that’s just what I think,” without further elaboration.

If you ever watch a college football game with a group of college football coaches, the first thing you’ll notice is their prescience.

They can predict plays, sides of the field the ball will go to, and even if a pass will be completed, all before the snap.

In a hotel lobby, one coach is overheard saying he’ll watch the game in his room and not the bar because it’s annoying to watch with people who call out plays before they happen.

Later, watchers in that adjoining bar gasped just like the rest of us as Tua Tagovailoa’s interception was returned the other way. But before the replay ran, one coach was sure the player at fault was Tagovailoa — something Kirk Herbstreit would soon confirm with his telestrator.

Crowds of coaches from schools across the country (most you’ve never heard of) greeted every one of Alabama’s many negative plays the same way — with boisterous cheers.

Does that mean every college football coach in America hates Alabama?

Sort of.

“I think we’re scared of how consistent they’ve been, especially these last three to four years. The Saban Alabama era for coaches, we’ve watched the entire FBS coaching profession respond to what they do,” a Power 5 head coach told SB Nation Tuesday.

“The dominance of Alabama has cost so many guys jobs. More than you realize. And you can’t tell some of these schools, ‘Hey, you’re not equipped to beat them. There’s nothing I can do as a head coach. They’re so far out there now with money and analysts and influence.’”

If no one seemed to want Bama win, no one expected Clemson to blow out the Tide. No one.

The most talked-about elements of the game, both during and after, were:

  1. Clemson’s ability to make Tua “think too much” or “think too fast,” with credit to defensive line play (“They wanted to hurt Bama more than Bama wanted to hurt them”) and Clemson coordinator Brent Venables.
  2. The Tigers’ success despite how few rushing yards they had until the end, and the general aggression in their play calling late in the game.
  3. “Goddamn, your kicker was lead blocker” became an IRL meme across San Antonio’s Riverwalk Monday night and Tuesday, in reference to:

The second thing you notice is how uncanny they are at identifying momentum swings before normal folks can.

At last year’s AFCA, a group of coaches boldly predicted early in the third quarter that Alabama would come back to win, based solely on Georgia’s “tight” play calling.

But this year, it was the exact opposite: incredulity until the very end about what was unfolding.

Given Alabama’s two notable comebacks vs. Georgia (and the fact it’s Alabama), coaches didn’t believe Clemson could hold its first half lead, let alone build to a blowout.

Each Clemson score was met with:

“Ah, see, HERE’s where the comeback starts ...”

“Okay ... here’s where it starts.”

“... Here?”

The moment it clicked: Alabama was down 28 and then didn’t score.

“Holy shit, the comeback’s not gonna start.”

It makes sense that an entire industry summit grimly assumes Bama dominance until proved absolutely otherwise, whether the rare surprise actually benefits any of them or not.

“I think a lot of guys at SEC jobs and at the non-SEC schools who are expected to compete with Bama — like Oklahoma or Notre Dame or Florida State — it got to this point recently where there is no beating them off the field,” said the P5 head coach.

“Those SEC coaches at jobs where you used to beat Bama have it the worst. You’re not going to overtake them in facilities or staff or planning. So it’s not about Clemson or Dabo really, it’s just about breaking up that run.

“I’m sure Auburn was thrilled [by Alabama losing], even though they woke up today with every problem they had yesterday.”