NEW ORLEANS — Here is how college football went completely topsy-turvy over the past month. Alabama lost one game. One. Its coach, Nick Saban, took that result and turned the Crimson Tide into a full-blown underdog.
“We lost one game in a dogfight in a tough place to play,” said sophomore linebacker Terrell Lewis, “and it just went to, ‘Oh, ’Bama’s dynasty is over.’ ”
“I don’t feel like they gave us the respect,” said senior defensive back Tony Brown.
Oh, brother. This is Microsoft as a feisty tech start-up, Walmart as a corner drugstore, ExxonMobil as the local fill-up station, with window-washing service thrown in at no charge. A lot will be made of Saban’s ability to dissect an opponent and prepare a team with more than a month off, because that’s what he had since the Tide lost to Auburn on Nov. 25. But what of the voodoo he did on his own players’ minds, creating a scenario in which Alabama — winner of four of the previous eight national championships, the only team to make all four versions of the College Football Playoff — believed the world doubted Alabama.
“Everybody been doubting us, like we ain’t ’Bama,” Lewis said. “We ’Bama.”
Take note, Georgia. You’re next on the schedule. And ’Bama’s still ’Bama.
“We definitely heard the world,” said defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne.
What, exactly, the world was saying doesn’t matter. It’s what the players thought that does.
The players were the characters who executed in Monday night’s 24-6 dismantling of Clemson in the Sugar Bowl, which doubled as a national semifinal in the College Football Playoff. This was not the enthralling shootout in the Rose Bowl from earlier in the day nor the down-to-the-final-play classic against Clemson for the national title a year ago. This was a defensive masterpiece, from Payne’s game-changing interception — which led to one of the only touchdown passes you’ll ever see a 308-pound man catch — to Mack Wilson’s pick-six to all but seal it with more than 20 minutes of football to play.
Roll out whatever stat you’d like, and it likely proves how thorough Alabama’s performance was. Clemson went without a touchdown for the first time since 2014. Clemson averaged just shy of 450 yards during its previous 13 games — never fewer than the 281 it gained during a tough early-season victory over Auburn — and was held to 188. Clemson looked like it had a burgeoning star in quarterback Kelly Bryant, and he threw two interceptions and was sacked five times.
And so we got to hear the tales of how the Tide was told it stunk, when it actually didn’t.
“People said Ohio State should be here,” said linebacker Rashaan Evans. “We thought Ohio State was going to be here.”
“The fact that we lost one game, everybody just started to mark us out,” Lewis said. “People were saying we don’t belong in it, the SEC is weak. This is real personal.”
What it is is straight-out, climb-on-the-couch psychology. That “personal” bit? Lewis and other players said it. But it came straight from Saban, who admitted as much afterward.
“It was a little bit personal, I think, for us after what happened to us in this game last year,” he said.
By “this game,” Saban meant not the semifinal — which Alabama won the past two years — but in the national title game against Clemson, in the Tigers’ epic 35-31 victory. In the week leading up to the Sugar Bowl, the third straight playoff meeting between these two schools, there was lots of talk about respect and mutual admiration and blah blah blah.
Clearly, that’s not what Saban was saying to his players at practice, in meetings, in messages subliminal and otherwise.
“As a team, we had a mentality of: Don’t remember the wins, remember the losses,” Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts said. “And we never forget what happened.”
Sounds a little chilling from a player in a program that has lost 14 games in the last 10 seasons. Fourteen total losses in a decade.
Give Saban time, and he is a devious genius. He made sure his players were aware of every slight, real or perceived. He made sure the Tide understood that Clemson had erected a tombstone back at its South Carolina campus commemorating last season’s victory in the national title game. Never mind that it’s a long-standing Clemson tradition to mark significant road victories in this fashion. To Alabama, this became about the Tigers and Coach Dabo Swinney essentially mocking them.
Was that the truth? Didn’t matter. It’s what they believed. Listen to Brown, the defensive back who was part of the coverage in the game-deciding play a year ago.
“Coach Dabo, how they handled that win, man, look, we needed that,” Brown said. “That was all ammunition. That tombstone, telling us we wasn’t worthy of this, man. They told us we weren’t ready for this game. I’m saying, we showed who was ready and who wasn’t ready.”
Brown was rolling now. He said he believed Hunter Renfrow, the receiver who caught the winning touchdown a year ago, had “lied” about reaching out to Brown in the aftermath of last year’s game to apologize for some trash-talking.
“That was a made-up story,” Brown said.
Maybe. Maybe not. What’s important here isn’t the truth. What’s important is what the Tide believed.
“I appreciate that,” Brown continued. “I love that. I love the lies he told. And I love Dabo for all the ammunition he gave this team, man. Told us we wasn’t ready. Told us we wasn’t worthy of a top-four team. I mean, look. That’s what happens when you talk trash to us. We’re going to show you.”
The Tide showed Clemson on Monday night. They’ll have a chance to show Georgia in Atlanta next week. Think ’Bama’s not ’Bama? No, no. Give Saban a chance to create a chip out of whole cloth and place it on the shoulders of his players, and he’ll take it every time.
With the game in hand, Clemson finally got in position to score. The Tide wanted no part of it.
“They wasn’t going to get no touchdown,” Lewis said. And when Bryant’s fourth-down pass sailed out of the back of the end zone, they had none. The Tide, then, celebrated. But they also made it a point to comport themselves professionally. If that created a contrast with Swinney and his Tigers, well, then, so be it.
“We don’t make a fool of ourselves after the game, after a win,” Brown said. “We’re used to it. I was very excited. But, like, as far as dancing and dancing in the locker room and making a fool of yourself? We don’t do that here. We win with grace.”
They win with talent, too. But they also win with mind games. ’Bama’s Bama, now and forever.