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Alabama coach Nick Saban praises UCF but says that 'self-proclaimed is not the same'

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 5 days ago George Schroeder

Nick Saban et al. posing for the camera: Alabama head coach Nick Saban, flanked by the Amway Coaches Trophy and the CFP trophy, speaks to fans at a celebration of the Tide's national championship on Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Ala. © Brynn Anderson, AP Alabama head coach Nick Saban, flanked by the Amway Coaches Trophy and the CFP trophy, speaks to fans at a celebration of the Tide's national championship on Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Ala. TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Nick Saban says he has “a tremendous amount of respect” for UCF’s accomplishment last season, because he knows how difficult it is to go unbeaten. But he’s not exactly aboard with the Knights’ claim on the 2017 national championship, either — not that you’d expect him to be.

Alabama beat Georgia in overtime to win the College Football Playoff’s national championship. UCF athletic director Danny White said the idea of claiming a crown, too, sprouted from his original proclamation on the field after beating Auburn in the Peach Bowl (“National champs. Undefeated!”), then “grew organically” into a celebration that included national championship bonuses paid to coaches, national championship rings for players and signage at Spectrum Stadium in Orlando: “2017 NATIONAL CHAMPIONS.”

If it has been a source of pride for the Knights and their fans, it has been a source of amusement for many around college football … and a source of irritation for some in Alabama. Saban seems to fall somewhere between bemused and mildly annoyed.

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“If you honor and respect the system that we have, (despite) some of the imperfections that you understand that the system has, then you wouldn’t do something out of respect for the system that we have,” Saban told USA TODAY Sports. “I guess anybody has the prerogative to claim anything. But self-proclaimed is not the same as actually earning it. And there’s probably a significant number of people who don’t respect people who make self-proclaimed sort of accolades for themselves.”

In Auburn, UCF beat a team that had beaten both Alabama and Georgia during the regular season. And the Knights and their fans point to the Colley Matrix, a computer system that was once part of the Bowl Championship Series formula, which had the Knights No. 1 in its final rankings. But former UCF coach Scott Frost, now at Nebraska, expressed reservations with the national championship claims.

“All I’ll say,” Frost told USA TODAY Sports earlier this month, “is if we had stayed there, I would have had a hard time getting behind it.”

He added: “At the end of the day, the Playoff system is that the national champion is the team that wins the Playoff.”

But that’s part of White’s argument — that UCF didn’t have a legitimate shot at advancing to the College Football Playoff. And Frost agreed, contending the Playoff’s selection committee underrated the Knights in every weekly ranking. UCF was ranked No. 18 in the first rankings; in the final Top 25, UCF was No. 12. Frost called the ranking “almost criminal.” White called the Playoff “a flawed system.”

a group of people posing for the camera: Central Florida Knights head coach Scott Frost, linebacker Shaquem Griffin and quarterback McKenzie Milton celebrate their Peach Bowl victory against Auburn. © Brett Davis, USA TODAY Sports Central Florida Knights head coach Scott Frost, linebacker Shaquem Griffin and quarterback McKenzie Milton celebrate their Peach Bowl victory against Auburn.

Alabama, which finished 12-1, didn’t win the SEC West but was chosen for the four-team bracket instead of Big Ten champion Ohio State, which had two losses. Of the five national championships won by Alabama in the last nine seasons (three BCS, two Playoff), Saban noted only the 2009 team finished unbeaten. (His 2003 LSU team, which won the BCS championship, wasn’t undefeated, either).

“We’ve only had one undefeated team, and that is really hard to do,” Saban said. “So I have a tremendous amount of respect for their team and what they were able to accomplish. … And they can make every claim that they should have been in the Playoff. I get that. But we have a system, and it’s not fair to the people who went through the system and earned their way playing really, really good teams — I mean really good teams — and really tough games. It’s not quite fair to them for somebody else just to decide to (claim a national championship).”

Saban paused, then continued:

“It has no impact or significance on my feeling of what our team accomplished,” he said. “I mean, I’m so proud of the adversity they overcame, the togetherness that they had to have, the work that they put in, you know, and the resiliency that they showed throughout the season to overcome injuries, the resiliency in the Georgia game to come back to win. These are characteristics that, I don’t care what anybody else says or does, it would not fundamentally affect what I feel about our group of players and what they’ve been able to accomplish.”

White noted that college football’s history is littered with seasons with more than one team claiming a national championship. Alabama claims 17 national championships, including some that are disputed and several claimed retroactively. But those came in the era when titles were bestowed by polls and other ranking systems. The advent of the BCS, which matched two teams in a championship game, led to fewer split titles. With the College Football Playoff, there’s been occasional, mild controversy over the four teams chosen by a selection committee, but no real debate about the national champion.

“That’s not how it’s done anymore,” said Saban, referring to the era before the BCS and the Playoff. “All the national championships that we won, we had to play somebody to win them. And we got in the game because of the season we had.”

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