TAMPA, Fla. — The next Alabama team that doesn’t play with an edge will be the first one under Nick Saban.
Or as senior linebacker Reuben Foster said, “If you don’t have that edge to you, then we’re probably not for you.”
It’s a part of Alabama’s DNA under Saban, part of his belief that an even remotely contented team is a defeated team, and part of the now-famed “Process” that has the Crimson Tide on the brink of their fifth national championship in the past eight years under Saban. The Tide face Clemson on Monday in the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T (8 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN App).
But as this matchup has neared, there’s an added edginess to this Alabama team, almost a simmering anger that anybody would dare suggest that the Tigers are just the team to extinguish the Crimson Tide’s 26-game winning streak.
In fact, if you didn’t know better, you’d almost think Alabama was the underdog.
“[The media] is selling us as possible underdogs, possible upset,” senior outside linebacker Tim Williams said. “We know what we have to come out there and do at the end of the day — put the cleats on.
“When you have No. 1 next to your name as much as us at Alabama, a lot of people are going to take shots, and a lot of people are going to say a lot of things. But we have a standard that we always play to, and we never worry about the end result. If we put everything we have on the field, then we can deal with everything else after.”
The Las Vegas oddsmakers say Alabama is nearly a touchdown favorite in this rematch of last year’s national championship game, which the Crimson Tide won 45-40. But there’s a noticeable grimace on the faces of Alabama’s defenders when you mention that game. Sure, they remember holding the national championship trophy afterward, but they also remember Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson shredding Alabama’s defense to the tune of 405 passing yards and 4 touchdowns and another 73 rushing yards.
“That’s something that sticks with you,” senior defensive end Jonathan Allen said. “It was like we were just holding on, and that’s not the way we play defense. It wasn’t close to our standard.”
Allen said he still hasn’t watched the entire tape from that game, and senior outside linebacker Ryan Anderson emphasized that this is a different Alabama defense.
“Nothing that happened last year has anything to do with this game,” Anderson said. “All the outside stuff and all the predictions are just a bunch of talk. We know what kind of defense we are, and we know what kind of team we’re facing in Clemson. We’ve been ready all year, and nothing’s going to change now. I can promise you that.”
The Tide have allowed just 15 touchdowns on defense in 14 games this season and have scored 11 touchdowns themselves on defense.
“It’s our job to stop people on defense, but where you break other teams is when you start scoring touchdowns on them,” Anderson said. “That’s when you’ve got them. That’s when you see the life coming out of them, and we talk about that before every game.”
On offense, the Alabama players have grown increasingly weary of hearing about the departure of offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin and how the transition to Steve Sarkisian will affect them. The Crimson Tide never found any rhythm on offense in their 24-7 victory over Washington in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, and that shaky performance has prompted more than a few pundits to call for the upset.
“It’s not like we’re changing our offense. We just changed the guy calling plays on offense,” center Bradley Bozeman said. “You can call it what you want, but when’s the last time Coach Saban has been wrong about one of these decisions? What I saw on the practice field this week was an offense that was hungry, an offense that was playing fast and an offense focused in on playing its best game of the season Monday.”
Keeping any team motivated after 26 straight wins can be a challenge, but Saban leaves nothing to chance. He’s constantly looking for ways to keep his team dialed in on what’s right in front of it and offers up some of the greatest names in sports as proof of how the chase never ends.
One of the things he does is show his team video of Michael Jordan talking about making game-winning shots.
“It doesn’t matter how many game-winning shots he’s made in the past. The only one that matters is the one he’s about to take,” Saban said. “That’s the whole deal. Can you focus on the next shot? You’re so zeroed in on the next shot that you don’t have time to think about the other ones. You really don’t.”
Alabama senior tight end O.J. Howard is miffed that so many people seem to be judging the Tide on one subpar performance offensively against Washington. They had 25 negative plays against the Huskies, and true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts threw for a season-low 57 yards.
“It’s kind of a slap in the face when you do something well all year, and then your parents give the gift to your little brother and he just got an F on his test,” Howard said.
Foster, for one, likes that the Alabama offense is so testy heading into the biggest game of the season.
“That’s the way they were in practice this week. They came after us on defense, and I think that’s what you’re going to see in the game,” Foster said.
Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware, while respecting everything Alabama has done over the past few seasons, isn’t buying the whole underdog narrative with the Tide.
“Whatever mentality or mindset they want to go with, it’s all good,” Boulware said. “Technically, we’re the underdog. Look at the numbers. It is what it is. We’ve been the underdog for a lot of games this year, and we’ve taken care of business.
“So they can have their mindset, but we’re going to have ours, too.”