HOOVER, Ala. — That last-second loss to Clemson — sure, it gnawed at Nick Saban. But then, you’d expect it to, all offseason long. Which is why it’s no surprise that the coach who has streamlined the process of winning into something that should be capitalized — “The Process,” they call it — is going to wring every lesson he can out of the disappointment.
“Hopefully, we won’t waste a failure,” Saban said Wednesday at SEC media days.
The catchphrase might just catch on, at least around here. And it’s fine, as far as it goes. And undoubtedly, Alabama probably will find motivation from defeat. But unintentionally, it highlights a couple of things:
The Crimson Tide’s current run atop college football — four national championships in the last eight years, and a couple of near-misses — has created a standard for success that’s so high as to sometimes be unattainable. Saban probably doesn’t really mind that, because in his mind, it’s about, you know, The Process, not so much the result. But if losing on a last-second touchdown pass in the national championship game is a failure — remember, that’s his description — then prepare for the occasional setback to be treated like catastrophe.
And then there’s this: Clemson might have had a little something to do with it.
During the first three quarters, Alabama’s defense was on the field for 72 plays and gave up 259 yards and 14 points. In the fourth quarter: 27 plays, 259 yards, three touchdowns. The Tigers wore down the Tide? Deshaun Watson’s transcendence finally shone through?
“It’s not about everybody else,” Bama senior offensive lineman Bradley Bozeman said. “It’s about us. It’s us in the moment. Us finishing. … We didn’t finish. That’s what the standard is. It’s not just the defense (faltering), we should have scored more points."
In another corner of the room, senior receiver Calvin Ridley was asked if the loss felt like a failure.
“Uh, it kind of did,” he said. “But you get better from losses.”
Nothing wrong with either guy thinking that. It’s part of The Process and its single-minded focus on competing against yourself rather than the opponent. Thus, on those rare occasions when the Crimson Tide does not win, Saban talks of a lack of buy-in or a loss of focus. Players follow the coach’s lead. In their minds, they could have and should have been better in preparation. And it’s probably correct. And it probably does provide motivation to work harder to avoid a repeat occurrence.
But it also comes off as a slight to the opponent.
It could simply be Clemson was better that day. Or in the fourth quarter. Or just on that final play.
To his credit, Saban gave Clemson some.
“We played against a really, really good team,” he said Wednesday, “which I think when you get in the playoffs, that should be what you expect.”
Last January in Tampa, one formidable machine collided with another — and Clemson escaped with less damage. And this is where Alabama’s dominance of the SEC does the Tide no favors.
Alabama has won 17 consecutive games against SEC opponents, with an average margin of 21 points. In 2016, the average was 24.9 points. Saban denied the reality — because really, what else could he say? — saying he has “a tremendous amount of respect” for multiple teams and coaches and adding, “I think there’s a lot of parity in our league.”
Not all that long ago, the league annually had several other elite contenders. Now there is parity — but only below Alabama. The Tide is so far ahead of the rest of the SEC that most weeks, it really is playing against itself, or the standard of perfection.
Maybe if the Tide was challenged more often by the other SEC teams — and even lost a few more games, maybe – it wouldn’t treat a loss in the College Football Playoff as solely personal failure, as though the opponent hadn’t much been involved.
Alabama’s current domination of college football is something we’ll look back on as perhaps the most impressive dynasty in the history of the sport. But at least once you get to the Playoff, other teams have very talented players and play very good football, too.
Sometimes, it’s not about a lack of buy-in during preparation or a mysterious loss of focus in the fourth quarter. Sometimes, Clemson is just better – on the day or on the play. But other than Saban’s nod to “a really, really good team,” we didn’t hear a whole lot of that on Wednesday.
As part of The Process, it makes perfect sense. And undoubtedly, the Crimson Tide will not waste its failure. ‘Bama will be back atop the rankings when it kicks off the season against Florida State — “built like an SEC team,” Saban said, “you know, like our teams” — at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Four months later in the same stadium, Saban could be hoisting another national championship trophy.
But if not, if some other team makes a few more plays and comes out on top, prepare to hear more about failure. The Tide’s success has come to this:
Alabama can’t lose for winning.