STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
There's a college football championship game tonight that is a rematch. Alabama plays Clemson almost a year to the day since the two teams played for the title last year. Now, Alabama won that game 45-40, so Clemson is thinking about revenge. NPR's Tom Goldman is here to talk about that. Hi, Tom.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hello.
INSKEEP: What are the chances for Clemson here?
GOLDMAN: Well, last year's game, Clemson's Deshaun Watson, considered the best quarterback in college football, he had a monster performance against Alabama's vaunted defense. He ran and passed for a total of 480 yards. He threw four touchdown passes. He's back for tonight's game. Then in this year's College Football Playoff semifinals, Clemson looked really tough beating Ohio State 31-nothing while Alabama wasn't exactly the juggernaut it's supposed to be in its win over the University of Washington. Experts said 'Bama (ph) even looked a little vulnerable.
INSKEEP: Whether they looked vulnerable or not, Alabama has won four out of the last seven titles.
GOLDMAN: Good point. The fact that a lot of people are starting to talk Clemson upset - you know, it's perfect for the Crimson Tide to be the favorite and have this perceived slight that people are disrespecting, you know, your 26-game win streak, which the Crimson Tide are on, your amazing body of work. This gives Alabama that jolt of anger that athletes and teams love before a big game.
INSKEEP: You like that before a big interview on MORNING EDITION, right? That jolt of anger?
GOLDMAN: Well, you just got me angry before we started here, and it's working.
INSKEEP: (Laughter) If only people had heard that. So what should we watch for in tonight's game?
GOLDMAN: Alabama's defense against Deshaun Watson. He is very good, but he's thrown a bunch of interceptions this season. He threw two more in that Ohio State game that they won. But Alabama's defense is ruthless on turnovers. Of the 27 fumbles recovered or passes intercepted by Crimson Tide defenders this season, they returned 11 for touchdowns. You make a mistake, there's a whopping 40 percent chance the Alabama defense will turn it into a score. And defensive touchdowns can really break an opponent's spirit.
INSKEEP: Are you pinpointing, Tom, why it is that Alabama has won so many championships in recent years, defense?
GOLDMAN: I believe I am. I'm pinpointing defense. I will also pinpoint the man on the sideline with the headset, Nick Saban. He keeps winning championships dating back to his five years at LSU before his decade at Alabama. Saban is 12 and 1 in championship games. That's conference championships and national championships. If Alabama wins tonight, that'll be national championship number six for Saban. That would tie him for the most with Alabama coaching legend Bear Bryant. You can tell by those numbers Saban's teams play their best in the biggest games.
INSKEEP: How does he make that happen?
GOLDMAN: Many layers to his success. Here are a couple. He preaches process. Now, listen to this Saban quote, Steve. Quote, "I'm tired of hearing all this talk from people who don't understand the process of hard work like little kids in the backseat asking, are we there yet? Get where you're going one mile marker at a time." I'll bet he was loads of fun on car trips with the family, don't you?
INSKEEP: (Laughter) He might've been in the back seat as a kid saying that.
GOLDMAN: (Laughter) Right, exactly. Now, while he has a system, Saban also is flexible. There was this really good article in Sports Illustrated. It talks about Saban not being afraid to change. He's recently been recruiting faster, more versatile players to give Alabama the option to play this up-tempo brand of football that's become popular in recent years. As one former player said, Saban sees the writing on the wall before other people.
INSKEEP: We've been listening to NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman on this day of the College Football National Championship, Alabama and Clemson. Tom, thanks.
GOLDMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.