When Chris Davis crossed into the blue and orange end zone Nov. 30, fan bases of all colors rejoiced. After the domination Alabama casted on the college football world, Goliath had finally been taken down with a play that manifested the deep revenge everyone wanted.
While it seemed like the rest of the nation celebrated an epic play for the history books, time in Tuscaloosa stopped. A coma of disbelief blanketed Alabama fans failing to fathom the certainty of what just happened. They stared motionless at the soft glow of their television sets. CBS commentators Gary Danielson and Verne Lundquist didn’t speak, letting the roar of the rushing Auburn crowd break the silence in crimson decorated rooms where reality was mingling with the desperation of ‘it can not be’.
Shows like Sports Center were unofficially banned. Instead, Tuscaloosa bar TV’s unintentionally showed re-runs of the Biggest Loser, until the irony of the name alone antagonized poor patrons who asked to switch over to hockey.
Students who typically stayed on campus to party toward what would have been another SEC Championship and road to third straight National Championship, went home early and the once dubbed ‘Title Town’, was a ghost town in presence and spirit.
It was death by hated rival. And once again, Alabama’s loss meant Auburn’s ultimate gain.
When Alabama fans and players woke up from their nightmare, they realized 2013 wasn’t the team that would play for a historic three-peat. But it was the team that would have one last chance to play perfect football in a game of redemption.
“There’s lots of lessons to be learned for every team,” Nick Saban told reporters Wednesday morning. “When you have adversity, and certainly we had adversity in our last opportunity as a team, how we respond to that adversity will say a lot about our players as individuals and collectively as a group.”
Jan. 2nd’s Sugar Bowl pits No. 3 Alabama against No. 11 Oklahoma in a showdown of a team who holds the last national crown, and the team who boasted in the preseason that it would knock it off.
This is only the fifth meeting for the two programs. Oklahoma won the last contest back in 2003, serving Alabama football the loss at home. But this version may go a little differently.
Oklahoma’s quarterback position is shared between Trevor Knight, Blake Bell and Kendal Thompson. All three have seen starts, last minute comebacks and injuries this season. Bell is the last of the three under center, but Stoops says his starter for the Sugar Bowl will be “a game time decision”. Even if his players know, we may not know until the first whistle.
No matter who leads the Sooners’ offense, they will face an impressive Crimson Tide defense. Alabama is 5th in the nation for defense overall, 2nd in scoring defense, 5th against the pass and 11th against the run.
Yet even with touted leadership in players like CJ Mosely, Alabama’s defensive weakness is clear against quarterbacks who possess the ability to run and pass, and Sooners Knight and Bell both have that dual threat. Think of Auburn’s Nick Marshall and the 296 rushing yards given up to Auburn, or Johnny Manziel’s 464 through the air and 96 on the ground.
When it comes to Alabama’s offense, maybe the single most important statistic for you to remember is this: Alabama is 42-1 under McCarron when they run for at least 125 yards. They are 4-5 when they don’t. Case in point? Stop T.J. Yeldon, and his two understudies (that’s a loose term) Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry (who together have 10 touchdowns this season) and you have a chance. And while we’re on the running backs, it’s important to note Alabama’s depth at the position. Spots one, two and three belong to two sophomores and a freshman, but this week it was freshman Derrick Henry who practiced in the second string position ahead of sophomore Kenyan Drake… talk about fierce competition.
Alabama is the favorite to win this game, but that can be a dangerous expectation to carry into a bowl game where season records matter no more. And just like AP Writer Brett Huston said, “Its hard to say just how focused Alabama will be after it’s BCS Championship hopes slipped away in agonizing fashion.”
Even though they would like to move on from that image of Chris Davis’s Auburn jersey running more than 100 yards toward unthinkable upset, Alabama has had a month for that scene to replay in their minds.
Now comes the most important thing they do as players, or perhaps even as people. They have to use that painful memory to work on becoming better. And lucky for them they have one more shot to make sure winning is the last thing some of them do as Alabama athletes.
“The important thing about a bowl game is all about mindset,” said Saban. “How your team resets their mindset is really important to how a team’s going to prepare. How they’re gonna focus, how they’re gonna play in a game.”
Alabama is not the dark horse, but something tells me they have the mindset of one now.
“To me sometimes if you’re an underdog you have a little bit more to prove,” said Saban. “That mindset is a little better maybe than a team that doesn’t have the right motivation going into a game.”
Perhaps it was the wrong mindset that cost Alabama in the first place.
“I think one of our players said it best,” Saban said Wednesday. ‘Our victories is what defeated us.’
“When you win sometimes you lose focus on the things that are important to being successful. The process of things that you do to pay attention to detail, play with discipline, do the little things correctly- all the sudden don’t seem as important and you don’t practice as well… and it starts to show up in your play.”
As he has preached since he first came to the Capstone, Nick Saban believes responding to adversity creates champions. And champions aren’t always the ones that hold the Crystal Trophy, but are instead ones who seize opportunity despite that. It’s not the cheesy moral at the end of a Disney movie- it’s a truth that sweetly shows why there’s a lot to be learned in the ups and downs of wins and losses.
“I think sometimes when you have a disappointment you’re a little more ready to respond, to get back to doing the things that you need to do to be successful,” Saban proclaimed, searching the room of reporters calmly with his eyes. “I think that’s the challenge for our players, and that’s why this is an important game for us,” he said right to the cameras where he knew his players were listening.
“We’re fired up about playing Oklahoma,” defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan said when asked about their opponent.
“Its not for a National Championship or anything, but we’re going into it like it is.”
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