TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It was the kind of post on social media that couldn’t be ignored, but senior linebacker Rashaan Evans meant it as motivation.
“I’ll win the Butkus Award,” he tweeted on Feb. 21, then added in the spring: “I believe in that tweet, and I’m going to keep it up for the rest of the season.”
Evans eventually did take it down, though. A painful groin injury suffered in the season opener against Florida State knocked him out of the running for the outstanding linebacker honor, although he did come back after missing just two games.
It was one of numerous setbacks that the Crimson Tide experienced this season, which hasn’t gone quite as expected.
Yes, Alabama is 11-1 and in the College Football Playoff for the fourth straight year. But the Crimson Tide lost their biggest game of the season, 26-14 at rival Auburn. More than that, player after player made uncharacteristic mistakes as the team didn’t execute well.
“We didn’t finish in the last game like we would’ve liked,” Nick Saban said.
The coach stated nearly the exact same thing at the end of last season, after Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson led the game-winning drive and scored with 1 second remaining to keep the Crimson Tide from claiming back-to-back national championships for the second time under Saban.
That win was supposed to serve as a spur, only everyone seemed to forget just how much Alabama lost from the 2016 team.
It had to replace defensive linemen Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson, linebackers Reuben Foster, Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams, plus cornerback Marlon Humphrey and safety Eddie Jackson on the defense alone.
Offensively, the Crimson Tide no longer had starting left tackle Cam Robinson and prize tight end O.J. Howard, nor ArDarius Stewart, who was the emotional leader of the receiving corps.
We won’t waste your time recounting all of their collective accomplishments and awards, and trying to replace all of that productivity wasn’t easy. The coaching staff lined up numerous talented players to take their spots, but replicating their experience was an impossible task.
Everyone still bought in, and that’s clear or Alabama might already be starting bowl preparation for a game it really didn’t want to play. The offense struggled at times down the stretch, with some questioning the unit’s identity, and the defense was decimated by injuries.
Saban, with a month and an almost completely healthy roster in a revenge game? Ooooooooooooooh-weeeeeee!
— Jose Aquafresco Returns (@jwbul287) December 3, 2017
Coming into the season, Alabama was thought to be loaded at linebacker, with seniors Shaun Dion Hamilton and Evans set in the interior spots, junior Christian Miller and sophomore Anfernee Jennings on the outside, and the likes of sophomore Mack Wilson, sophomore Terrell Lewis and true freshman Dylan Moses all poised to be future stars.
Only Evans got hurt, along with Miller (bicep), Lewis (elbow) and Jennings (knee) in the opener. Hamilton, the player who was a coach on the field getting everyone lined up correctly and making adjustments, suffered a season-ending injury against LSU. Wilson had a foot injury in the same game, with Moses stepping in to start.
Senior defensive lineman Da’Shawn Hand (knee) and junior defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick (hamstring) both had injuries as well, senior safety Hootie Jones (knee) was sidelined by a chop block at Auburn and sophomore defensive lineman Raekown Davis was shot in the leg during training camp.
If you count Jones as a starter, and Alabama does as it plays more in nickel than its base package, at least seven defensive starters had some sort of setback while playing on a unit that had been overhauled to begin with.
It’s been one thing after another, yet Alabama leads the nation in scoring defense (11.5 yards), is second in total defense and pass-efficiency defense and third against the run.
So there’s definitely something there regarding the character of the Crimson Tide.
“This team has overcome a lot of adversity this year,” Saban said.
Keep in mind that 7 of the 8 defenders that Alabama has lost to injuries late in year will be back for playoffs……
— Chris Landry (@LandryFootball) December 3, 2017
Instead of applying for medical redshirts, Miller and Lewis returned to play part-time roles for the Iron Bowl, along with Wilson just a couple of weeks after having surgery. It was a bit of a gamble, especially if Alabama didn’t make the playoff.
Now, they and everyone except Hamilton and Jones have a chance to be fully ready for the playoff, taking advantage of the break while Saban hits the reset button. When the team returns to practice next week, everyone will go through the same drills as the start of spring workouts and fall camp.
Only this is like a whole new season, during which everything that had previously happened is irrelevant. It’s a four-team tournament, winner take all, and Alabama’s expectations are still the same.
Consequently, we’ll all find out together what Alabama has learned, both from last year’s national championship loss and the grind of this season.