One of my lasting memories from last season’s SEC championship game was seeing a grim-faced Nick Saban alone in a corner of the Alabama locker room at the Georgia Dome.
He’d just finished up his interviews and was gazing down at the stat sheet with sort of a blank stare.
You could almost read his mind.
… We did everything to win this game other than winning the fourth quarter and other than keeping Tim Tebow from doing what he does best -- make clutch plays on third down.
For Alabama to climb that mountain in only Saban’s second year on the job and get that close and not win was one of those things that cuts deeply.
You could see it in his face. You could see it in his players’ faces. It was still obvious a month later with the way the Crimson Tide played in their Sugar Bowl loss to Utah.
“The fourth quarter of that game stayed with us all offseason,” Alabama nose guard Terrence Cody said. “Nobody forgot it. We didn’t want to forget it.”
Some of the faces have changed. So have the roles of a few of the players, and even the Crimson Tide’s personality on offense has changed some. They’re not the line-up-and-mash-you type of offense they were a year ago with that star-studded line.
Nonetheless, here they are -- back for another shot.
“I was very proud of what our team has been able to do to accomplish what they’ve done this season,” Saban said. “I was very proud of last year’s team. But the challenge is that great teams and great competitors are never satisfied and always want to accomplish more and achieve more, and they’re very committed to that standard of excellence.
“That’s something this team is going to have an opportunity again to do something that last year’s team didn’t get done. The commitment to that standard of excellence and the passion that they have demonstrated throughout the year are all things that are going to be key ingredients for them to continue to have success.”
It hasn’t always been pretty for the Crimson Tide, but they’ve been the essence of resourcefulness this season.
They’ve played to their defense, which has come through time and time again, and sprinkled in big plays from some of the usual suspects and occasionally from some of the not-so-usual suspects.
In Saban’s way of thinking, it’s called being a team.
“Even though we had a couple games where I don’t think we played our best football, we still made the plays we needed to make in those games to have success,” Saban said. “Players responded when they needed to, and I’m really proud of what they were able to do relative to the expectations.”
And while going 12-0 for the second straight year in the regular season and getting back to the SEC championship game for another shot at the Gators is exactly where the Crimson Tide expected to be, there’s certainly no sense of relief in Tuscaloosa.
If anything, there’s a sense of unfinished business.
“The goal is to be a champion,” Saban said. “I didn’t say to win a championship. I just said be a champion. That’s our goal here. That’s what we want to do. We want the kind of togetherness, respect and trust that we need on our team to be a team where everybody plays together and understands the importance of positive energy and attitude and trying to be a good team, everybody working hard and committed to being the best they can be. That’s what we continue to try and strive for, and that’s what we strive for every week with our team.
“There’s really no sense of relief. There’s no complacency. There’s no place for that to me in competitive sports because until you finish the last play of the last game, there’s another challenge out there.”
Like finishing the fourth quarter this weekend in Atlanta.