TAMPA, Fla. — Picture this for a moment: two 300-pound young men hugging and sobbing into the other’s shoulder for nearly 30 seconds.
That was the scene in Alabama’s locker room following the Crimson Tide’s 35-31 loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff national championship game on Monday.
The players? Brandon Greene, a senior living the reality of that being the end of his Alabama career and Dallas Warmack, a sophomore knowing he won’t have one of his older brothers around much anymore.
Some players handled interviews professionally. Others politely declined. A handful had a few choice words for reporters.
The roles in this situation were reversed in the worse way if you’re an Alabama fan — victory snatched away in the final second.
But for these players, many of them experienced a pain not often felt inside an Alabama locker room. Alabama doesn’t lose these types of games. Nick Saban was perfect in national championships heading into this game.
“The hardest thing to do is to try to talk to somebody that is used to winning,” said Alabama linebacker Tim Williams. “Around here, we rarely lose. When we do lose, it’s a shock. It’s a shock to everybody.”
Compare that to the Clemson locker room that was a zoo of people. There were children dancing, selfies being taken and “linebackers on three” chants being yelled.
On separate sides of Alabama’s locker room, a similar inspirational message was being pushed.
Williams, an outgoing senior, urged his younger teammates to use this loss as motivation. Williams parroted the words he heard from C.J. Mosley following Alabama’s 2013 disappointment, and Landon Collins when Alabama dropped its semifinal matchup vs. Ohio State in 2014.
“It’s a bunch of young guys. They the future, man,” Williams said. “We need them to keep their head on so they can carry the train.”
Conversely, dressed in a tan suit and a crimson and white tie, freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts was ready to turn the page.
At times, it’s hard to truly put Hurts season into context. He clearly struggled throwing the ball in Alabama’s two playoff games. But Hurts’ biggest issue may have been the fact that he had to live out all of his freshman mistakes on national television. To his credit, Hurts was never afforded the redshirt year that many young quarterbacks need. By necessity and sheer will of winning the job, Hurts was thrust into action essentially from Day 1 of the season.
For the most part, he delivered.
When the game was on the line, Hurts came up big. In most games, Hurts’ 30-yard touchdown run with 2:07 left would have been the knockout blow Alabama needed.
Problem is, the offense’s inconsistency for the majority of the contest left Alabama’s defense on the field for far too long. That’s where Hurts struggles as a passer (and a few drops) ultimately doomed Alabama.
Standing on the sideline during the final minutes, it was clear that Alabama’s defense was completed gassed. They wound up on the field for 99 plays while the Tide’s offense ran just 66 plays.
Alabama’s offense was a horrendous 2-of-15 on third down conversions. That’s how an all-time defense eventually gets worn down over the course of a game.
On the other side, Clemson and Deshaun Watson hit their stride in that fourth quarter. For the second straight year, Watson shredded Alabama’s defense to the tune of 420 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Williams said outside of his teammates, Watson is the best player he’s seen during his time at Alabama.
Alabama failed to pick up a 3rd down in the last 3 hours and 37 minutes of real time.
8:49pm – 12:28am
— Peter Burns (@PeterBurnsESPN) January 10, 2017
Alabama will look drastically different next season. The Crimson Tide are guaranteed to lose Williams, Reuben Foster, Ryan Anderson, Jonathan Allen, Dalvin Tomlinson, Eddie Jackson and O.J. Howard.
Key juniors — left tackle Cam Robinson and cornerback Marlon Humphrey — likely are jumping to the NFL as projected first round picks. There are plenty of 4- and 5-stars waiting for their opportunity.
The offense should return most of its skill players, including ArDarius Stewart, Calvin Ridley and all of its running backs, but it starts and ends with Hurts.
“I’ll watch film tonight,” Hurts said, “I’ll begin my sophomore season.”