Hugh Freeze, congratulated by Nick Saban after Ole Miss victory at Tuscaloosa in 2015, believes Saban has made Alabama “the gold standard” in college football.


Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson assassins have won 40 of their last 43 football games, which means the Crimson Tide has lost just three games over the last three seasons. Hugh Freeze-coached Ole Miss administered two of those three defeats and then came closest of any team to defeating Bama this season.

Besides being a good friend of Saban, Freeze also is close to Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. The fast-paced Clemson offense mirrors Freeze’s spread-the-field Ole Miss attack. To this observer, Freeze seems the best possible expert to talk about Clemson’s chances of taking down Alabama in Monday night’s national championship game.

Bama, you should know, is a 6.5-point favorite.

“Alabama is the gold standard,” Freeze said in a Thursday phone call. “But if Alabama is going to be beaten, Clemson has the system, the trigger guy and the athletes it takes at receiver to win the one-on-one battles.

“I am not saying Clemson is going to win. What I am saying is if that if this Alabama team is going to be defeated, they are playing the team that has all the necessities to do it.”

Rick Cleveland

Freeze should know. On Oct. 4, 2014, in Oxford, No. 11 Ole Miss came back from a 14-3 halftime deficit to stun No. 3 Alabama 23-17. On Sept. 20, 2015, at Tuscaloosa, when most thought Saban’s revenge-minded Tide would ravage Ole Miss, the Rebels prevailed 43-37. On Sept. 17, 2016, Ole Miss built a 21-point first half lead before No. 1 ranked Alabama rallied to win 48-43 at Oxford. In 2016, nobody else came within double digits of Bama.

Clearly, Freeze knows a thing or two about dealing with Alabama.

He also knows what happened in last year’s championship game when Clemson out-rushed and out-passed Bama, and had 31 first downs to the Tide’s 18, before losing 45-40. Watson, the so-talented Clemson quarterback, threw for 405 yards and four touchdowns and ran for another 73 yards. He produced more yards than Alabama.

Said Freeze, “(Clemson quarterback) DeShaun Watson is special, and I mean special. He almost beat Alabama last year. It takes a special guy at that position to defeat Alabama and he’s that.”

The obvious question for Freeze: How will the stunning departure of Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, one week before Monday’s game, affect what happens?

“Honestly, I think it could happen either of two ways,” Freeze said. “Number one, and Nick being a friend, I can see where this would motivate him exponentially. Knowing Nick, he will use it for motivation. When you get him really motivated and locked in, that’s not a good thing for the other team.”

Steve Sarkisian, the former head coach at Washington and Southern Cal, will replace Kiffin and call the plays for Bama Monday night. He spent this season at Alabama as an offensive analyst. He has never called a play for the Crimson Tide and hasn’t called a play for anyone since midway through the 2015 season when he was fired at USC.

That leads to what Freeze believes could be the second scenario of how Kiffin’s departure affects the game.

“The biggest concern would be the communication between Sark and the players,” Freeze said. “Under NCAA rules he hasn’t, during the past season, been part of that process. I’m not talking about the terminology of plays. He knows all that. But he hasn’t really had a chance to develop a relationship with the players. There’s a certain rhythm that comes with calling a game between a coach and players. Sark’s a pro, but that’s still a challenge.”

So does Kiffin’s departure give Clemson a far better chance of winning?
“Honestly, of the two scenarios, I would lean toward this being more of a motivating factor for Nick,” Freeze said.

So who will win?

“Oh man, I’ve been going back and forth,” Freeze said. “Before the news about Lane I would have said Alabama by seven. I’m not sure how the whole deal about Lane affects the confidence level of Alabama. I know Clemson is supremely confident and really playing well.

“I’m going to say Alabama. By three. It ought to be a great game.”

Rick Cleveland is Mississippi Today’s sports columnist. Read his previous columns and his Sports Daily blog. Reach Rick at

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.