The Alabama football team’s postseason trip started a few days earlier and in a different venue than the Crimson Tide had hoped.
Instead of an early January flight to Pasadena, Calif., to complete preparations for another BCS National Championship Game, the Crimson Tide rolled into New Orleans on Friday to resume practice for Thursday’s Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Alabama, the two-time reigning national champion, appeared headed to overtime against Auburn on Nov. 30 in a game that decided the Southeastern Conference West Division and put the winner in position to make the BCS title game. But a 57-yard field-goal attempt fell short, and the Tigers’ Chris Davis returned the ball from the back of his team’s end zone for a game-winning touchdown on the game’s miraculous final play.
Just like that, the Tide’s dream of playing for a third consecutive BCS title was gone. A month later, Alabama is preparing to play a game that has significantly lower stakes.
“Sometimes I think when a team is looking forward to something a little different than where they end up, it could affect their approach,” coach Nick Saban said Thursday. “But I think players also have to have a maturity and respect for the opponent that they have and realize the importance of the game and prepare to play their best in it.”
The Tide had eight practices on campus before breaking for Christmas on Tuesday and Wednesday. The team reconvened in New Orleans for its first on-site practice Friday in the Superdome.
“I feel like guys are just way more excited when they arrive,” linebacker C.J. Mosley said. “Our first practice is going to be in the Superdome, so I’m pretty sure guys are going to be more excited to be practicing there than at our facility. We have to make sure that everyone is staying focused. The main thing is that, when we get to practice, we are doing the same things that we have done all year. We had eight great, physical practices in a row leading up to this, and everyone had the right mindset and got our bodies back in shape.”
Quarterback AJ McCarron said he gained a few pounds during his trips to award banquets, which culminated with a visit to New York, where he was the runner-up to Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston for the Heisman Trophy. McCarron said he started shedding the excess weight when he returned to campus.
McCarron said the players’ approach to practice demonstrated that they have no after-effects from Auburn loss.
“We come to practice every day, and we are out there to get better,” he said. “We aren’t just going through the motions. We have a purpose to get better and come out and win this game. I feel like we did that while back at school, and we need to carry it over to this week.
“Anything in life, if you really look at it, always takes some sort of crisis for a person to respond the right way or do the right thing. We were trying to keep that from happening this year, but it’s happened, so now we have to buckle down even more, buy in and be ready to play.”
Saban said a loss like the one to Auburn always leaves a team with “a lot of regrets.”
“But I think the key to the drill is, how do you respond to that?” he said. “How do you respond to the disappointment? How do you prepare to play the next game? Because there are going to be a lot of regrets surrounding it if you don’t prepare yourselves properly.”
Mosley said the players’ motto has been to be more like the 2010 Tide team than the 2008 team. In 2008, Bama similarly missed out on a BCS title shot after losing to Florida in the SEC title game, then got whipped by Utah 31-17 in the Sugar Bowl.
But the 2010 team came off a one-point loss to Auburn in the regular-season finale and manhandled Michigan State 49-7 in the Capital One Bowl.
“The teams that are most motivated play the best in bowl games,” Saban said. “I think the way that you play in a bowl game has something to say about the future of your program, and each player has an opportunity to demonstrate individually and collectively as a team what they’re going to be in the future and what we’re going to be in the future.”