|TideSports College Football Preview|
As dominant as the Alabama football team was in 2018, something was off.
Nick Saban knew it.
Tua Tagovailoa did, too.
The Crimson Tide coasted through half the season, crushing opponents at every turn. Even a showdown against No. 4 LSU turned into a cakewalk for No. 1 Alabama. After that, though, something happened — something Saban has tried to get his teams to fight against since the Crimson Tide won a national title in 2009. That pesky little thing called complacency.
“We played our best game of the year against LSU,” Saban said on ESPN this summer. “Then we didn’t play as well after that.”
Alabama did win the rest of its regular-season games, got pushed by Georgia in the SEC title game and survived a push from Oklahoma in the CFP semifinal to reach the championship game against Clemson.
Everyone knows the rest of the story. Clemson did the dominating back on Jan. 7 in Santa Clara, California, and made the 2018 Crimson Tide look the way no one thought possible – mediocre.
“We played looking at the scoreboard,” Tagovailoa said of the 2018 season, which saw Alabama put up 50-plus points eight times. “If the scoreboard was good to us, we kind of eased off. We didn’t go in playing the way we were supposed to be playing. We played for two or three quarters and we let off the gas.
“We didn’t finish the way we were supposed to finish.”
Not finishing. Another battle Saban has been waging for years. There are lessons to be learned from 2018 for sure, ones Tagovailoa has fully embraced.
“I know this sounds weird to lose, but when you win, it is a great feeling, and when you lose, it isn’t a great feeling. I think since we lost, it was a good experience for our team entirely, because a lot of us have come back and it is something that we don’t take for granted now. Winning isn’t something that you should take for granted.”
So now Alabama hits the reset button and for the 2019 team, the message, delivered by Saban at SEC Media Days, is crystal clear.
“I think the most important thing for us, in this offseason and going into this season, is sort of re-establish the standard that we’d like to play to, standard of discipline, also, players that are going to be responsible and accountable to do their job at a high level on a consistent basis and also put the team first,” Saban said.
“It doesn’t mean you can’t have individual goals and aspirations in terms of what you want to accomplish, what you want to do for the team, but it has to be about the team. I think that sometimes people see you when you create numbers for yourself and do great individual things, but you really get noticed when you do those things and the team has success as well.”
Alabama’s familiar with the situation it’s in now. In 2016 Alabama steamrolled past the competition, but instead of the offense blazing the trail toward the national title game, it was the defense. Alabama led the nation in fewest points allowed per game (13), rushing yards per game (69) and yards allowed per game (261). Three players off that 2016 defense (Marlon Humphrey, Jonathan Allen, Reuben Foster) were first-round NFL Draft picks.
Alabama reached the national title game and, despite that impressive resume and talent, came up short. One second short. It was Clemson, again, denying the Crimson Tide another piece of hardware for the trophy case and an undefeated season.
After the 2016 disappointment, Saban spoke at SEC Media Days the following summer. And just as he did this past July, Saban delivered the mantra for the season: Don’t waste a failure.
“Well, we really try to do it the same way because whether you win or lose, we’re always trying to self-assess to see what we need to do to get better,” Saban said in 2016. “I think when you lose, everybody’s much more — the mindset is much more ‘I’m willing to change. I want to learn. I don’t want to waste a failure. What could we have done better?’
“Because everybody’s hurt by the fact that they lost, especially the way we lost that particular game on the last play of the game — but it wasn’t the last play. It’s what led up to the last play. I think our players realize that.
“We weren’t able to finish the game like we needed to. And I think there’s a lot of lessons to learn, and hopefully we won’t waste a failure.”
The message was received and the 2017 Crimson Tide found its way back to the CFP title game for a chance at redemption, which it got with some help from freshman Tagovailoa’s heroics against Georgia on the final play of overtime.
Tagovailoa’s back to lead the 2019 team and he’s got an arsenal of receivers, a plentiful backfield, a strong offensive line, and hindsight. Some of the freshman from the highly touted 2019 signing class have turned heads in fall camp and are expected to contribute. The defense has a strong core nucleus back, as well as a few veterans (defensive back Trevon Diggs and linebacker Terrell Lewis) who missed part or all of last season with injuries.
So the tools are there for Alabama to “re-establish the standard.”
“I think it’s important for them to focus on what they can control today,” Saban said at the start of fall camp. “We have so many players who get frustrated about what happened yesterday or they get complacent because they had success yesterday and we get some players who are worried about what’s going to happen in the future. Really, the things that you do today correctly — making the right choices and decisions and having the right work ethic and preparing yourself to go out and play at a high level on a consistent basis — that’s what really prepares you for the future.
“That’s what we are trying to get guys to do now. Focus on what’s happening now and understand that’s what you control and that’s going to help you in the future. All of us are a little addicted to tomorrow. Making it happen today is the way you improve. That’s the way you will improve and that’s the way you will add more value to yourself and it will help our team really get a lot better.”