NEW ORLEANS – They didn’t utter the word as they arrived in New Orleans Wednesday morning, but coach Nick Saban and Alabama players seem to have revenge on their minds heading into their New Year’s night showdown with Clemson in the Sugar Bowl.
They spoke of opportunity to make up for a loss to Auburn in their last game, to prove they belong in the College Football Playoff despite not winning their conference, and to give Clemson payback for a last-moment loss in last year’s national championship.
“One of the statements I made last year after we didn’t succeed in the championship game is, ‘Don’t waste the failing,’ which means learn from the things that you did or didn’t do,” Saban said after walking off a plane through a cold rain amid the sound of a brass jazz band into his first press conference in the Big Easy.
“I think your identity as a team starts with how you finish. This team has an opportunity to try to finish this season a little better than what we did the last. I’m proud of the way they went through the season. I think we lost our identity a little in the last game (a loss to Auburn). I think we’ve learned what we needed to do to be able to succeed in our last game. We feel fortunate to have the opportunity to sort of rectify that.”
All-American defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick said his team’s confidence is high.
“We’ve got no reason for it not to be high,” he said.
Running back Damien Harris said he and his teammates are focused, motivated and assured, though he didn’t realize his team was favored by oddsmakers.
“I didn’t even know that until you just said that,” he said. “We’re not really focused on where we stand in other people’s eyes. The biggest thing for us is playing our best football on Jan. 1. I think we’ll respond really well to how we finished the season. We didn’t finish the way we wanted to, but I think guys are motivated, and I think guys will take that and kind of use it and help us in this upcoming game.
“This is a business trip for us. We’re not looking to see what we can get into in New Orleans. We’re focused on how we can beat Clemson. That’s all that this team is worried about.”
Saban said that attitude is consistent with a trend he’s noticed through four consecutive years in the College Football Playoff.
“Each year they have been more and more serious about the game and less and less interested in the bowl experience because they’ve experienced consequences, good consequences and bad consequences,” Saban said.
“I think they understand that after going through that experience -- as I do -- the fun of it all is having success. The fun of it all is winning the game. No matter what you do, you don’t remember all the things you did, but you always remember whether you won or lost the game.
“That’s changed a little bit with our players, which doesn’t disappoint me at all. I’d love to see them have the opportunity to have a good time and be rewarded for having a great season, but the playoffs have significant consequences and the opportunity that you have really doesn’t afford itself. The two don’t fit together that well.”
The consensus odds posted on vegasinsider.com as of noon Wednesday showed the Crimson Tide favored by a field goal.
“Obviously you have to expect it to be a very difficult game,” Saban said. “You’ve got to be able to overcome adversity, and everybody has got to take ownership to do their job. It comes down to what do you want to accomplish and what are you willing to do to do it. Just like anything in life, I think you make a goal, you understand there’s a process of things that you have to do to accomplish the goal. You have to have the discipline to execute it every day. That’s not necessarily a feeling. It’s a choice that you choose to be persistent in the things that are going to help you be successful and you resist the things that are not going to make you be successful.
“To this point, relative to the preparation we’ve had, I’ve been really pleased with the coaches and the players, how they’ve gone about that. Hopefully we’ll get started down here and be able to pick up where we left off, get ourselves ready to play an outstanding game against an outstanding team.”
Michael Burns, The Greenville News