GLENDALE, Ariz. -- In Nick Saban's first game as Michigan State's head coach, defending national champion Nebraska crushed his Spartans 50-10 on Sept. 9, 1995.
When Saban walked to midfield after the embarrassing debut, legendary Cornhuskers coach Tom Osborne shook his hand and offered a few words of encouragement he'd never forget.
"You're not as bad as you think," Osborne told him.
Saban, who had spent the previous four seasons working as the Cleveland Browns' defensive coordinator, wasn't so sure.
"I'd been in the NFL for four years, and I'm saying, 'We may never win a game as a college coach,'" Saban said. "I learned a lesson that day, and you know, as long as you do this, it's always about your next play. It's always about the next game."
Of course, Saban picked up the pieces and has guided his teams to five national championships since that humbling opener against the Cornhuskers. He won his fourth title in seven seasons at Alabama on Monday night with a 45-40 victory over No. 1 Clemson in the College Football National Championship Presented by AT&T at University of Phoenix Stadium.
"This is my -- I hate to say -- favorite team," Saban said. "I love 'em all, but these guys have come so far and done so much. This is all about winning a game for them. I wanted to win this game for these guys, man."
Like Saban more than two decades ago, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney learned a valuable lesson Monday night. He now knows his team can compete with anyone, even the Crimson Tide, who have been college football's juggernaut for much of the past decade. After winning 17 consecutive games, the Tigers came up just short in trying to win their first national championship since 1981.
"There's no doubt that we will be back," Swinney said. "It won't be 34 years before we're going to be back, I promise you that. Our team is built to sustain success. We've got the right ingredients from a toughness standpoint, talent standpoint and the will to win. [That's] the culture we have in our program. We'll learn from this and we'll grow from it."
While Alabama and Clemson probably will be among the top contenders to return to the College Football Playoff in 2016, there's no guarantee either one of them will be. Ask 2014 national champion Ohio State. The Buckeyes lost only one game this past season, a 17-14 defeat against Michigan State, but it was enough to cost them a Big Ten title and keep them out of the playoff.
Saban and Swinney won't wait long to start working toward a chance to compete for another spot in the playoff. After becoming only the second coach in major college football to win five national titles -- legendary Crimson Tide coach Paul "Bear" Bryant won six -- Saban will spend about 24 hours celebrating. Alabama's spring semester starts Wednesday, and he already has separate meetings planned with his team's exiting seniors that afternoon at 2 and then with the players who are returning an hour later.
Sustaining the Crimson Tide's unprecedented level of success has always been Saban's motivation. This coming offseason, perhaps more than any other, will be tumultuous. Alabama will undergo extensive makeovers on both sides of the ball, with as few as two or three starters expected back on defense and maybe only five on offense.
Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, who ran 36 times for 158 yards with three touchdowns against Clemson, is expected to enter the NFL draft as a junior. Tight end O.J. Howard, who caught five passes for a career-high 208 yards with two touchdowns against the Tigers, also has to decide whether he'll return for his senior season.
The Crimson Tide will have to find a new quarterback, with senior Jake Coker playing his final game on Monday night. Freshman Blake Barnett, from Corona, California, is considered the early favorite, but he'll have to hold off sophomore Cooper Bateman and junior Alec Morris to win the job.
Alabama's personnel losses on defense might be even more extensive. Senior linebackers Reggie Ragland and Denzel Devall are leaving, along with cornerback Cyrus Jones and safety Geno Matias-Smith. At least three juniors -- defensive linemen A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen and safety Eddie Jackson -- might leave early for the NFL draft.
There also will be changes on Saban's coaching staff. Longtime defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who has spent the past nine seasons at Alabama, was named the head coach at Georgia, his alma mater, last month. Saban already has replaced Smart with former Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.
Smart has hired Crimson Tide defensive backs coach Mel Tucker to serve as the Bulldogs' defensive coordinator.
"Kirby has been with us for a long time and done a really, really good job," Saban said. "We certainly wish him the very best. I know this has been a difficult time for him to do the right thing relative to our players who have worked so hard to help him have the success that he has, that we all have, and he did a wonderful job. He really did."
Meanwhile, the Tigers might actually be in a better position to return to the College Football Playoff than the Crimson Tide this coming season. While Alabama has uncertainly at quarterback, Clemson will bring back Deshaun Watson, who will go into the 2016 season among the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy.
Watson, who finished third in Heisman voting behind Henry and Stanford's Christian McCaffrey this past season, nearly led the Tigers to an upset win over the Crimson Tide. He threw for 405 yards with four touchdowns and one interception on 30-of-47 passing, while running 20 times for 73 yards. He became the first player in FBS history to pass for more than 4,000 yards and run for more than 1,000 in the same season.
"He's special," Swinney said. "He really is. He's got great toughness, great heart [and] a great mind for the game. He just made some huge plays all the way to the end. I'm glad he's on our team. Glad he'll be back next year."
Depending on which juniors decide to leave for the NFL draft, Watson will be surrounded by plenty of playmakers next season. Tailback Wayne Gallman, a draft-eligible sophomore who ran for 1,482 yards with 12 touchdowns this season, is deciding whether to return to school. Three starters are expected back on the offensive line, and receiver Mike Williams will be back after missing all but one game in 2015 because of a neck injury.
Tigers junior defensive end Shaq Lawson already has announced he's leaving early for the NFL draft, and three other players -- end Kevin Dodd, cornerback Mackensie Alexander and safety Jayron Kearse -- might do the same.
Regardless of which players stay and go, the Tigers will be the favorites in the ACC in 2016.
"It's been a long time since we stood on top of the mountain, but we're not quite there," Swinney said. "But we can see it and we'll get there."
With the loss to Alabama still stinging, Swinney couldn't help but look toward next year.
"Where is this thing next year? Is it in Tampa?" Swinney asked. "Is that where it's at? We'll see if we can reload and go do it again."