Sunday, December 29, 2013
Alabama looking to avoid deja vu in NOLA
By Edward Aschoff
The sights, sounds and stakes are eerily similar for Alabama.
It's a BCS bowl game, Bourbon Street, beignets and a chance to get another big win on the big stage.
For 99 percent of the programs out there, it's a tremendous way to end the season. But for No. 3 Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC), it's nothing like what this team is used to.
Alabama may not have a national title on the line, but senior quarterback AJ McCarron still wants to end his career on a high note.
After winning back-to-back BCS titles, there is no championship on the line and the attention Alabama usually receives at this time of year won't be close to what it's used to. Neither a crystal football nor a No. 1 ranking will be handed to the Tide with a win in this year's Allstate Sugar Bowl against 11th-ranked Oklahoma (10-2, 7-2 Big 12).
But if you turn back the clock, Thursday's game in the Big Easy is a bit of deja vu for the Tide, as Alabama will see many of the same scenes it saw at the conclusion of the 2008 season in that hapless 31-17 loss to Utah in the same game.
"Not taking anything away from anybody else or the team that beat us, but we did not play with the same effort, intensity, sense of urgency. We didn't finish plays, we had lots of mental errors and six penalties in the fourth quarter that were very, very costly," Alabama coach Nick Saban said about the loss to Utah. "So there were a lot of lessons to be learned, and we kind of let it happen."
Heading into that game, Alabama was fresh off a stinging 31-20 loss to Florida in the SEC championship game. Alabama was No. 1 and a win away from playing in Saban's first national championship as the Tide's head coach.
Similar to 2008, this Alabama team lost its championship momentum after a heartbreaking loss to Auburn at the end of the regular season that featured a last-second, 109-yard Auburn touchdown on a missed 57-yard field goal.
No one would blame the Tide for coming out slow in this year's Sugar Bowl after such a gut-wrenching end to the regular season.
When Alabama lost its mojo in 2008, it fell flat against Utah. After that Florida-fueled fourth quarter in Atlanta, Alabama's wheels fell off after Utah jumped out to a 21-0 first-quarter lead.
The emotional blow from the loss to the Gators stole the Tide's momentum and put a dent in that tireless preparation that made Alabama so dominant in 2008.
"The complacency and winning sort of got us away from that," Saban said. "I think every guy has got to change his habits and get back on track so that we can do things, talking about finishing plays, playing with discipline, doing your job, being a good team member, not being selfish, not being jealous about somebody else, not being disgruntled. There's all kinds of lessons to be learned."
Fast-forward to now, and this team will arrive in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome looking to reclaim momentum after watching arch-rival Auburn race to the SEC championship game and eventually the VIZIO BCS National Championship. The Tide's opponent this year? An Oklahoma team that struggled with an inconsistent offense all year before upsetting Oklahoma State to catapult into NOLA.
From the sound of things, this Alabama squad is too focused to slip now. The end of the season hurt mightily, but this Tide team has too many leaders, too much experience and too much pride to pout over its matchup with the Sooners.
"I want to go out the right way," senior quarterback AJ McCarron said. "I want to send these seniors out the right way. I feel it's only right for our class, my class that came in, and C.J. [Mosley] came in a year after but also a senior. We put a lot of work into this program to make it what it is today. It's only right we finish out on top. We still have a chance for a 12-win season, Sugar Bowl championship, which is huge. It's a BCS bowl. Not a lot of teams in Alabama history have won 12 games."
McCarron is right. Alabama has a chance to finish the season out strong and fuel a very important spring for Saban that won't feature the likes of McCarron for the first time since 2008.
Alabama still has a lot to prove, as well. Many think this team would be favored against BCS title teams Auburn and Florida State. The Tide might not be playing either, but this a chance for these players to show everyone how good they still are.
"We might not win the national championship, but we can have everyone talking about us more than the national championship team," McCarron said. "And that's happened in the past. We still have the opportunity to do that. So we have to go out the right way."