One of Nick Saban’s mantras is “Control what you can control,” a phrase his Alabama players didn’t fully appreciate until they couldn’t control anything.
For a team used to imposing its will and having the rest of college football adjust accordingly, it was surreal to watch the Big Ten and ACC championships. The Crimson Tide’s fate hung in the balance, and there wasn’t a thing they could do about it.
“When you leave your fate in somebody else’s hands,” running back Damien Harris said, “it doesn’t always work out in your favor.”
It did, of course. Clemson handled Miami easily, Ohio State beat previously undefeated Wisconsin and the College Football Playoff selection committee deemed Alabama better than the two-loss Buckeyes.
But that week of uncertainty has humbled and energized the Crimson Tide, who play top-ranked Clemson in the Sugar Bowl on Monday. This might be their fourth consecutive appearance in the playoff, and third year of facing Clemson, but it has a much different feel.
“There was a chance we weren’t going to be in here. This gave us a new life, new breath,” center Bradley Bozeman said Thursday. “My guys have been preparing like crazy. I’ve never been around a group of guys that have worked so hard after the regular season.”
Even the 2014 squad that came in 12-1 and ranked No. 1? Or the 2015 team that would win the national title? Or last year’s team that rolled into the title game unbeaten?
“Best one I’ve ever been a part of,” Bozeman said firmly.
Redemption and second chances have been a recurring theme for Alabama this year. The Crimson Tide had a second consecutive national title in its hands last year, only to have Deshaun Watson and Clemson snatch it away in the final second of the championship game.
Getting back to the top and reclaiming what was theirs was such a driving force that quarterback Jalen Hurts made a photo of Clemson celebrating the wallpaper on his old phone. When he got a new phone, he replaced it — with a photo of him walking off the field after the loss.
“(It) was a humbling yet friendly reminder, got to go get it,” Hurts said.
But memories, even the motivating ones, fade.
As Alabama roared out of the gate, beating then-No. 3 Florida State and piling up one lopsided victory after another, the Crimson Tide’s flaws became easy to ignore. Even closer-than-expected victories against LSU and Mississippi State could be brushed off as bad days.
But the flaws were on full display against Auburn, which outeverythinged Alabama in the Iron Bowl. Hurts’ tendency to falter against high-pressure defenses, the lack of another big-time receiver to share the load with Calvin Ridley, the injury-riddled defense — all of it was laid bare in that 26-14 loss that wasn’t as close as the score indicated.
“When you have success, a lot of success throughout the year, it’s easy to lose sight of the things that you don’t do really well. I think that’s kind of what happened to us,” Harris said. “There were some things that we should have improved on that I think that maybe we as players didn’t take as serious and we didn’t focus on enough because we were having so much success.
“And I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. I think it just caught up to us.”
A loss is hardly a disqualifier from the Playoff; Clemson, Oklahoma and Georgia each have one, as well. But the when, and the why, of those losses matter.
Clemson lost way back in October, and has since proven itself to be a balanced juggernaut. By not even making the SEC title game, Alabama had no chance to redeem itself.
“It was kind of a reality check,” Hurts said. “We don’t ever want to be in that situation again. Nobody likes to lose, but we have the opportunity we have now so we have to take advantage of it.”
Funny how that works sometimes. Only by losing control did Alabama get back on track.
By Nancy Armour
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.