HOOVER, Ala. — Six months later, Nick Saban is still in denial.

The Alabama coach was expectedly asked about 44-16. The biggest blowout loss of Saban’s Alabama tenure came on the biggest possible stage, and Wednesday, Saban was faced with his biggest media appearance since then.

But the words “Clemson was the better team in 2019” were far from his mouth.

Instead of saying that, Saban referenced “distractions” as the reason his team suffered such a deflating, historic loss at the hands of Dabo Swinney.

Just so you don’t think I’m taking Saban’s quote out of context, here it was:

“I think if you’re a great competitor and you are in a game like we were for the national championship and you didn’t perform very well, and given all much the credit to the other team who beat us and took advantage of the opportunities that they have, not to take anything away from them, but if you’re a competitor, you’re going to respond in a positive way and learn from the things that you didn’t do, whether those things were in preparation, game-day decisions, you know, the habits that you created leading up to the game the second half of the season. All of those things contribute to, are we going to be able to have success against one of the best teams, or the best team, in the country. And we obviously didn’t do that. That’s my responsibility.

“But I think that our players learned a lot from that experience. I think that we didn’t play with the discipline at the end of the season that we’d like to have as a team. I don’t think that our preparation, so that we can go in a game and be very responsible and accountable to do our job at a high level on a consistent basis, was what it needed to be.

“And you know, whether or not people were worried about personal outcomes more than team outcomes, it’s always hard to judge that. But it seems like we had a lot of distractions at the end of the year.”

I know what you’re thinking. Hasn’t Saban said this before?

Why, yes. Yes, he has.

At SEC Media Days in 2015, Alabama was coming off the Playoff semifinal loss to Ohio State. What did Saban say was at the root of that? Distractions. Here’s what he said 4 years ago (via AL.com):

“Our team chemistry from the SEC Championship Game to the playoff game was affected by something,” he said, and he suggested that “something” was the feedback from the NFL Draft Advisory Committee.

“So we’re trying to get ready for a game,” Saban said, “and all of a sudden, a guy finds out he’s a first-round draft pick or a guy that thought he was a first-round draft pick finds out he’s not a first-round draft pick, and we’re trying to get ready to play a playoff game.”

You can say something like that when you lose by a touchdown. When you lose by 28 points and get shut out in the second half? Yeah, that’s a different story.

There’s a pattern of Saban citing distractions as the reason his team didn’t win a game. When you’re favored every week and you have No. 1 recruiting classes, we tend to agree with that philosophy. Certainly the idea of a team just being better than Alabama is so far-fetched.

Here’s a crazy thought: What if Clemson was just the better team in 2019 and “distractions” didn’t explain a 28-point difference on a neutral site? Is that so crazy?

That 2019 Clemson team was one of the best of the 21st century. Shoot, I think it was one of the best ever. It went undefeated and it capped its season with one of the most impressive statement wins in college football history. It had 3 of the first 17 draft picks — all of whom were on the defensive line — and it had the highest-rated quarterback recruit in the recruiting rankings era.

What’s so wrong with watching that game and deciding, you know what? Clemson was a special, special group in 2018. Distractions don’t have to explain a 28-point difference. They shouldn’t.

The more I think about it, the more I think what Booger McFarland said on “The Paul Finebaum Show” the other day makes a lot of sense:

“I’ve been listening to your show, Paul, and I kind’ve been a little disappointed,” McFarland said. “OK, and here’s why: Everyone seems to seems to say that when Alabama loses that the kids aren’t focused. ‘OK, Mack Wilson is worried about being the Butkus (Award winner for best linebacker in the country). These players are concerned with their individual accolades.’ How about just saying Clemson was a better team, and they got beat? That’s the one thing that people that call in to your show don’t just say.

“Sometimes there’s not a reason or excuse, except the other team is better. And to me, that’s the disappointing part. When I listen to some of the callers that call in, ‘The coaching staff and no continuity, and you know, the players are worried about the NFL.’ What about that the other team is just better? (Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney) has done one hell of a job. And I was at the game, Paul. Clemson lined up and they beat Alabama. It wasn’t a fluke OK. (Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa) wasn’t sick. He didn’t have the flu.

“They just lined up and beat Alabama. They hit ’em square in the mouth and they beat ’em.”

Say it louder for the people in the back, Booger.

And for what it’s worth, I thought Alabama would win that game. I thought Alabama had proven more and I discounted Clemson because it played in a down ACC and it showed a little vulnerability earlier in the season when it was using a 2-quarterback system.

But then the game happened, and it wasn’t close. Don’t give me some total yards stat, either. Alabama had defensive backs getting burned, offensive linemen not winning at the line of scrimmage and it had no idea how to stop the bleeding in the second half.

Clemson’s best was better than Alabama’s best. Period. Was it 28 points better? Maybe, maybe not. But are we really supposed to believe that distractions finally reached a level that drove Alabama into some inescapable funk? I’m pretty sure those distractions were there when Alabama was the No. 1 team in the country for an entire season.

I asked Alabama players about that, too.

“I say we just didn’t play our best game that day,” Alabama receiver Jerry Jeudy said. “We didn’t execute our offense how we were supposed to and Clemson just took advantage of the opportunity that they had to do so. If we had been able to execute our plays, it would’ve been a better game, but we didn’t.”

OK, I get that. And I get as a competitor, you never want to admit that someone is just better than you. It’s a tough pill to swallow to think that your best might not be better than somebody else’s best.

“We didn’t get an opportunity to see (our best),” Jeudy said.

Clemson might have/definitely had a lot to do with that. As Alabama knows better than anyone, there’s only so much you can do when a team imposes its will. Perhaps it’s just so unfamiliar to see those tables turned.

Still, Dylan Moses said that Alabama’s best was better than Clemson’s best last year.

“It was more so just preparation. I wouldn’t say (Clemson) was the better team,” Moses said. “We both had great athletes on both sides of the ball. We didn’t prepare as much for Clemson and they obviously prepared more for us. They game-planned better for us. We were out-coached.”

And possibility Clemson’s players were better developed. I’d say 44-16 suggests that’s the case. After all, that’s what we always say when Alabama beats a team that badly.

This subject is interesting because everyone wants to know if Clemson has passed Alabama. I actually don’t believe that’s the case. I think Saban vs. Swinney is a 2-2, heavyweight fight that’s entering the fifth round. That 2018 Clemson squad was an all-time group that played like it was supposed to.

Here’s the thing. It’s a new year, and the majority of the group that was “out-coached” is now gone. Alabama can turn the page to 2019 and begin a revenge tour that’s unlike anything we’ve seen for Saban. He’s right. It is a new challenge. He’s never been beat like that. Maybe he never will again.

But there’s nothing wrong with giving last year’s Clemson squad the credit it deserves. Don’t make excuses for Alabama.

That’s just distracting you from the truth.