There is nothing harder.
Going undefeated for a season in college football is difficult, more difficult than people seem to realize. No team did it this year. No team did it last year.
Alabama came within one second of doing it, but couldn’t. The opponent was just that much better, one play that culminated with only one of the 3,600 seconds in a classic college football game, arguably the best ever in the era of settling things on the field. Clemson celebrated, and deserved to celebrate.
Alabama, in its locker room, was devastated, as emotional as any Saban team after any of the handful of losses his teams have suffered. There were bitter tears, the work of an entire year crumbled in a single evening, a single pass completion.
Because there is nothing harder. There is nothing like working to become a champion, and a continuation of the greatest championship legacy in college football. The cruel reality at Alabama is that the only path into the pantheon of great teams is to win it all. The 2016 team was great, and should be remembered as great. But it will carry that painful albatross that haunts a few other great Alabama teams — 2014, or 1973 (UPI national title or not) or 2008, which couldn’t make it past the hurdle of the SEC Championship Game.
It’s a question of “what if?”
In a last-second game, there isn’t just that single play that makes a difference. It’s every play that matters. Alabama made many of them, especially with its own fourth-quarter drive. But Clemson made more. They made enough more that you can’t lay the loss on the injury that put Bo Scarbrough out for much of the second half. You can’t blame the offensive coordinator shuffle that Alabama went through a week before the game. There were chances to win, a chance for the best defense in college football to get one last stop, no matter how fatigued they were.
So now Alabama has to regroup. They have to spend an off-season without all the accolades, with the raucous Clemson celebration ringing in their ears. That’s hard, too. It’s much easier to sit back and soak up the praise, which is why Saban fights against it so hard. Now, it has to do what Clemson did — Alabama has to fight through a long, difficult SEC season, get back here and play better against whichever team survives the playoff to reach this point.
Alabama has done it before. It has the material to return, if it is shaped correctly. Saban has engineered such returns in 2009, when the goal was to get back to Atlanta and beat Florida in what was the actual national championship game. He engineered one in 2011, after a massively talented 2010 team lost its focus. He did it again in 2015. So there’s no question that it can happen again in 2017.
The defense will have to be rebuilt, especially the front seven. Jalen Hurts has to make strides in the passing game, and his development is Job One for Steve Sarkisian. There will be the usual early-exit players that will have to be replaced. It will be hard, even though Alabama will start 2017 as, once again, the favorite to win the College Football Playoff.
All that will be hard — a tough mission, even with great motivation. But it is achievable, as long as Alabama remembers that getting back isn’t the hardest thing. It’s getting close, within a second, within a play out of nearly 200 plays.
Ask Alabama’s players. There is nothing harder than working hard to get there — except working hard just to fall agonizingly short.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.