TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It’s probably not a huge revelation that the Auburn loss last season gnawed unmercifully at Nick Saban.
Any loss in the Iron Bowl tends to have that effect, and when it’s at home against the No. 1-ranked team in the country, seeing it slip away is all the more nauseating.
But what ate and still eats at Saban is the way his Alabama team lost that game.
In many ways, it was a microcosm of the Crimson Tide’s entire season.
“You keep going back to the way we lost the game,” said Saban, who saw his team race out to a 24-0 lead, only to squander repeated chances to tack on more points in the first half.
“We left points out there by errors that we made. And then to not be able to control the game in the second half was just as disappointing. You put the 24-0 score up there and then put the final score up, 28-27, and you say, ‘Are we ever going to let this happen again in terms of our psychological disposition to compete for 60 minutes?'”
You don’t have to look hard to find reminders of that game, not to mention Alabama’s other two losses, in and around the Crimson Tide’s football complex.
There are signs hanging up in the weight room, the locker room and several other areas that read simply, "Never forget. 28-27."
“Everywhere we go, we see it … posters and signs,” senior linebacker Courtney Upshaw said. “It’s motivation that we have to finish. We didn’t finish the fourth quarter last year, and that’s something we’ve always done around here.”
The sting of losing that Auburn game was lessened somewhat for Saban by the way his team responded in the Capital One Bowl. Alabama bounced back and played its most complete game of the season in a 49-7 trouncing of Michigan State.
But for the players, it was only validation of what they already knew down deep in their gut.
“We really feel like we underachieved last year, and that’s a terrible feeling to have,” junior offensive guard Barrett Jones said. “Last year, we just expected it to happen and forgot how it did happen two years ago and all the work we put in and all the extra stuff we did to be national champions.
“I think we bought into the hype and started thinking Alabama was untouchable, and I definitely don’t think we’re coming into it this year with that kind of attitude. We learned that we are very talented. But if we don’t play our best game, we’re going to lose.”
Senior center William Vlachos said it was like a slap in the face, but a slap in the face a lot of people at the Capstone needed.
He said this offseason and the start of spring practice have mirrored much closer the approach the Crimson Tide took in 2008 and 2009 when they didn’t lose a regular-season game.
“We didn’t play the way we’re capable of playing last year,” Vlachos said. “Everybody realizes that. We certainly realize that. It just adds to the size of the chip on our shoulder. I think the chip is back on our shoulder. We had the talent last year to do a lot of things we didn’t do, and part of that is everybody telling you you’re the best.”
They always matter in this league, where the difference between playing for a championship and playing out the season can be razor thin.
“The most important thing that you do in the spring is establish fundamentals,” Saban said. “We lost games last year because of lack of fundamentals, and I’m talking about something as simple as how you carry the ball, which got punched out in the Auburn game. The ball wasn’t being carried right.
“That’s an issue. That’s a fundamental. We made too many mental errors last year.”
Losing talent the caliber of Dareus, Jones and Ingram always stings. Still, Alabama should be a veteran club next season with a lot of guys who’ve played a lot of football.
The 2011 roster includes right around 20 scholarship seniors. The Crimson Tide had fewer than 10 last season.
“When you have that, you have a lot more maturity on your team, and guys can handle adversity better and play with more consistency,” Saban said. “The knowledge and experience just helps you make the ‘A’ play. I like this team so far, and I like the way it’s gone about its business.”
The translation: It’s a team more in the mold of those foot-to-the-throat teams Saban has bred with regularity during his Hall of Fame career.
“Coming off the championship, we expected to win every game,” Upshaw said. “A lot of people had it in their mind that once you’re on top, you’re going to stay on top.
“It doesn’t work that way. You don’t ever let off the pedal, and that’s what we’re going to get back to.”