TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — One second.
That’s what the National Championship Game came down to, the Alabama football team on the short end, when Clemson capped a 68-yard drive with a 2-yard touchdown pass from Deshaun Watson to Hunter Renfrow for the 35-31 victory.
It’s not the kind of thing a lot of people would be able to get over immediately, especially the outgoing the seniors.
“Some guys took a little bit longer than others,” defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick said Thursday afternoon.
“It wasn’t that tough, but it’s something that you think about every now and then,” defensive lineman Da’Ron Payne said. “We can’t do anything about that but work hard this season and try and get back there.”
If so, getting back on the field this week was an important step.
Even 10 years into Nick Saban’s reign with the Crimson Tide it still may not be obvious on the outside to how Alabama is able to shake off major setbacks, but there’s no doubting its ability to regularly do so.
The loss to Florida in the 2008 SEC Championship Game. The crazy defeat to Auburn after having a 24-point lead in 2010. The Kick Six game ending its chances of a three-peat in 2013.
It almost always takes something extreme to beat Alabama.
But the Crimson Tide usually come roaring back.
“One game doesn’t define who you are,” Saban said Tuesday, echoing his postgame comments in Tampa. “We won 14 games last year and played a really good team in the championship game. Probably didn’t finish the game like we’d like — I don’t think anybody’s happy about that.
“I think the challenge was to everybody in this building that works in football that this is not a time to think talk about ‘we,’ this is a time to talk about ‘I’ — what I can do better to helps us be a better team.”
While it sounds like coach-speak, and to a certain extent it obviously is, it’s also a core aspect to Saban’s success at Alabama. He’s known for working the psychology angle of a player’s and team’s development as much as anyone, regularly bringing in guest speakers and motivation experts to try and give his team every advantage he can.
Consequently, you’ll occasionally hear him comparing the program to being a bus, and he’s the driver. It’s a line that most people don’t pay enough attention to. What he knows is that the more people who get on board to help the program out, the better it’ll be.
“This has been a university commitment,” ESPN college football analyst Tom Luginbill said. “Not an athletics commitment, not a football commitment. That university has committed to athletics as a whole and as a result everything on the campus, from enrollment to things that have nothing to do with athletics have benefitted.”
Even more than on the field it’s on display in Alabama’s recruiting. The last time another program finished atop the 247Sports composite rankings was Florida in 2010. That’s not just impressive, but domination, and unprecedented.
Perhaps the closest thing college football has seen was when Army was able to load up its roster during World War II, when college players would enlist and then continue to play football for the military.
Between then and now, the word dynasty mostly has been used with Alabama, although that’s about where the similarities end. Recruiting was nothing like is it now, before the Internet, social media, roster limits, etc. There are many stories that continue to float around Tuscaloosa about how Paul “Bear” Bryant would tell a player, “I want you,” and that was pretty much it.
Saban has to work much harder at recruiting year-round, but continues to land top-notch prospects in abundance. That success along with having won five national championships helps fuel the debate about who’s the greatest coach of all-time.
“I can tell you right now, it’s not about who’s the best coach, it’s who has had the tougher job,” Luginbill said. “There’s no question that Nick Saban has had the tougher job. The eras are so completely different.”
It’s on display during the Crimson Tide’s spring practices, where 16 early enrollees and junior college transfers from the signing Class of 2107 already have joined the team. They include 5-star talents like running back Najee Harris, tackle Alex Leatherwood, linebacker Dylan Moses, wide receiver Jerry Jeudy and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
So when fans wonder about the lingering effects from having lost its first championship game under Saban, and how the Crimson Tide will respond, it’s not like there’s suddenly a crack in a dam that’s going to give way to mounting pressure.
None of those new players were in uniform that day while the veterans can draw from having won the 2015 national title and being the three-time reigning SEC champions.
For them, the loss will serve as motivation behind the scenes, while Saban continues to keep the team’s focus on the here-and-now, and creating the foundation for the team that will play in the fall.
Talent he has. What he now needs are new team leaders, like Fitzpatrick and Payne, guys who will help keep everyone on the bus.
“Every great team that we’ve had around here has had a lot of chemistry,” Saban said.