Alabama never forgot about its loss to Clemson in January. That game still weighs heavy for some players.
Quarterback Jalen Hurts carries a memory of that moment every day. Sometime before spring practice, he changed one of the background screens on his phone to a photo from that day.
“At first it was a picture of them (Clemson) holding up the trophy, them celebrating,” he said. “Then I got a new phone and I ended up changing it to a picture of me walking off the field, kind of with that face.”
Even forward-facing coach Nick Saban wasn’t shy about using that loss as motivation for months afterward. The head coach hasn’t brought the topic up recently, but in July, he talked openly about it at SEC Media Days.
“We weren’t able to finish the game the way we needed to,” he said in July. “I think there’s a lot of lessons to learn, and hopefully we don’t waste the failure.”
The loss was then, but the rematch is now.
Those storylines are likely to come up again and again in the next month. Alabama and Clemson have history, and it’s not from some decades-old rivalry. Many players will see themselves when they pop in game tape from January.
“We know we didn’t finish the season the way we wanted to and we want to make sure that never happens again,” senior cornerback Levi Wallace said. “We want to show the younger guys, ‘Now you know what it feels like.’ It’s a different city after you lose. So just knowing this is what we have to do. It’s not all play. Not everything comes easy. We have to put the work in.”
Saban is 19-3 in “revenge games” as an SEC head coach, including 10-2 at Alabama. The last time he lost a game to a team he had lost to the year before was to Ole Miss in 2014 and 2015. The only other time was when Alabama lost to LSU in the 2010 and 2011 regular seasons – but he avenged that with a win against LSU that postseason.
The coach would likely say that those games, along with any other win or loss from year’s past, won’t play a role in this game. Defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick said that despite being “round three,” the Sugar Bowl against Clemson is “just the next game.” He’s not the only one that feels that way. But on some level, Alabama’s loss to Clemson helped lead the Crimson Tide back to this junction.
“In the offseason, I think that really fueled us,” running back Damien Harris said. “Our whole motto was finishing, so I think that really helped us in the offseason. But now, we’re just focused on us and we’re focused on playing our best football.”
Even with the photo on his phone, Hurts doesn’t dwell on that game daily.
“I don’t look at it like, ‘Dang, I lost to Clemson.’ I don’t do that every time,” he said. “But it’s definitely there, it’s definitely a motivating factor and it’s always been. We all get the opportunity to kind of redeem ourselves and show the world what we are and who we are at Alabama.”
There’s other motivation for Alabama entering this game. Fitzpatrick said he feels some vitriol directed toward Alabama by other fan bases as one of the dominant programs in college football. Harris said he was thankful to make the playoff after facing the possibility of being left out on championship weekend. There’s the perennial motivation for Alabama to win a national championship.
But a rematch against the Tigers is part of that mix. Hurts said he wanted a chance to play against Clemson again. So did Wallace.
“To be the best you have to beat the best,” Wallace said. “They are No. 1 right now. After last year, that game just never quite settled with us. So we’re glad that we’re playing them.”
In the meantime, the picture will stay on Hurts’ phone.
“It hasn’t gone anywhere,” Hurts said. “Hopefully I can remove it.”
Reach Ben Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0196.