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Turning the Page: The Last Look Back at the 2017 NCG

Catharsis is a good thing. With spring practice just around the corner, we take one final longing look in the rear-view at the National Championship Game before turning the page on a new season

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama
Are the good times really over for good? Nah...
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It sucked.

The outcome of the 2017 National Championship Game loss to Clemson can be easily summed up in such brief terms. There’s no verbosity necessary to break it down to the most basic of human perceptions: sheer awfulness.

Through all the media jubilation, post-game breakdowns, explanations of Alabama’s faltering defense on that last Clemson drive, excuses regarding what happened to the mighty Crimson Tide’s commanding lead at the half…through all of that emotional cogitation, the pain of the loss remained. It was crystalline, the moment of that final pass play to win the game frozen, then replayed, then frozen and replayed again. Over and over and over. One couldn’t read a headline or watch more than a few moments of a sportscast without an emotional bloodletting each time flashes of “the drive” or images of Clemson’s orange-tainted championship celebration flickered past the downwardly-turned eyes of the Tide faithful. It was like at that second, a million crimson-devoted voices cried out all at once, and then were silenced.

Though the game is now two months in the past, it may still prove difficult to draw a positive conclusion from what transpired in Tampa on that fateful January night. To borrow from the lexicon of a perpetually-snookered frat kid, it sucked…sucked hard, bro. In every imaginable way. It sucked for fans who expected to see a dominant, unblemished, undefeated Tide team bring home the ultimate crown for the first time since 2009. It sucked for legions of Tide faithful who thought Alabama would once again conquer a worthy Clemson squad and win consecutive championships as it did in 2011 and 2012. It sucked for a group of Bama seniors who had an amazing record of achievement in their time at the Capstone, posting a 51-6 record while winning three SEC titles and numerous accolades. It sucked for Nick Saban himself, who suffered his first-ever loss in a National Championship Game, and missed the chance of tying the great Coach Paul Bear Bryant for most national championships won.

For everyone involved in Crimson Tide consciousness, it was the Apocalypse. Not only had the Tide’s Caesar finally been conquered, but it had happened at the hands of a man named “Dabo,” a fellow who eschews Saban’s own grinder-ball mentality for things like, for example, pizza parties. It was a particularly challenging time for those who believe the Crimson Tide to be a flawless, unassailable entity of football greatness which only fails when it allows itself to do so.

As one can imagine, as those final seconds ticked away back in January, the more uncouth members of the Bama fan base immediately fell into what-ifs and finger-pointing, alternately hanging the albatross of blame ‘round the necks of (in no particular order) Jalen Hurts, Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian, the Tide secondary, the officials, the color orange, the Book of Philippians, FAU president John Kelly, and the NCAA for allowing what many believed to be a questionable play on the game-winning touchdown.

But in reality, in the post-mortem, it’s not difficult to conjure exactly what happened on that night. Dabo Swinney and his staff coached a fantastic game. They were flexible enough to abandon the parts of their game plan that faltered early on, and they stuck with what they knew would be their strength. The staff gave their phenomenal quarterback the opportunity to win the game for them. They wore Alabama’s generational defense out with the sheer volume of plays, pure and simple. The Tigers remained resilient…they took a page from Bama’s own playbook and never conceded the loss despite being down. They saw an out-of-this-world performance from one of the best quarterbacks of the last decade in Deshawn Watson, a factor which, incidentally, has been a key component in every Bama loss of the Nick Saban Era since 2008.

Such things happen. They don’t happen to Alabama very often, but as in the previous karma-levelling losses of the Saban tenure, they have been extremely painful. For Alabama must trade something for the lofty heights it has achieved, right? In the grand scheme, a searing, painful loss to Auburn, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, and now, Clemson, is par for the course to balance the universal scales.

The loss was painful, to be sure, for everyone involved. But let us not forget that no one in the Tide diaspora hurt worse than the young men who put their lives on that 100-yard grid that night, and ultimately walked away disheartened. Few have elocuted such emotion better than beloved departing senior defensive lineman Jonathan Allen, as he encapsulated his emotions for the University of Alabama in the breadth of a wonderfully written piece on The Player’s Tribune (linked here…for the love of God, go read it if you haven’t and bring a box of tissues, for the dust is thick in that proverbial room). Here’s Jonathan speaking of the gravity of the loss, in his own words:

Losing to Clemson in the national championship game was the toughest thing that I’ve ever experienced on a football field. To lose a national title on the last play … in the last game of your college career … it took the wind out of me when it happened. And it still almost takes the wind out of me, even to write about it now.

But it happened.

One second we were winning, and the next, it was just…over. There was no chance to get ourselves up off the mat, and come back at them with a touchdown drive of our own. There was no chance to regroup, and show our mettle by returning the next week with a big win. And for me — and for the rest of the seniors — there wasn’t even a chance to dig down deep, and work 10 times harder in the offseason, and bring that trophy back to where it belongs. For me…that was it. We went 51–6 over my four years at Alabama. Fifty-one and six. Fifty-One W’s, and six L’s. But for all of that…we were still, somehow, going to end our careers on a one-game losing streak.

It didn’t make any sense. I didn’t know what to do. I know everyone thinks of Bama as this big, bad Goliath-type figure. Like we’re the Darth Vader of college football, floating above the SEC in our Death Star or something. And I know when we lost that game, from the outside looking in, people saw it as this happy ending, this feel-good story — with the “scrappy underdog” coming from behind to beat the “faceless villain.” I get it. Trust me, I get it. Everyone who suits up for Alabama gets it, and understands it, and knows what the deal is. But man…sitting there, on the field in Tampa, watching those Clemson guys celebrate…knowing it was all over…knowing it was time to say goodbye to this part of my life that has meant so much to me, and that has helped to make me into the man I am today…I didn’t feel like the villain that night.

I just felt bad.

Allen continues to elaborate on the feelings he, and undoubtedly, his teammates, suffered through in the immediate wake of the game:

For myself, sure, but not even that. Mostly, I just felt bad knowing how much our loss affected everyone around me. I thought about our fans, who had spent their hard-earned money to come all the way down to Florida to be there for us. I thought about everyone back home, in Tuscaloosa and throughout the state: this amazing community of people that — off-season, preseason, regular season, postseason, you name it — shows up for us all year long. I thought about our staff of coaches, and trainers, and professors, and administrators: people who work so hard to make sure that — both in football, and in life — our guys are put in the best position possible to succeed. I thought about our incredible freshmen, who had done so much growing up over the course of the season, and who had to take this year’s loss without getting to experience last year’s win. And I thought about all of the other seniors: these great, great players who had become like family to me — and who, like me, would never play another down for the Crimson Tide.

Right in the feels, no? Ouch. Jonathan said it so well, there’s little more to add.

The purpose of this piece isn’t necessarily to dwell on what is done and cannot be changed. For in the wake of the National Championship loss, the X’s and O’s, the Jimmys and Joes, the heroes and schmoes, have all been debated ad nauseum. We are all a little weary of it, to be sure. Now is the not the time to rip off the still-healing scab of a freshly-bound wound.

Rather, it is time for hope to rise, poking through loose, newly-turned soil like the nascent fiddleheads of ferns seeking life-giving light. For in the darkness that descended on Tuscaloosa with the loss, there too was the promise of illumination: the coming of a new season, the perennial rebirth that happens each spring in the harmonious cyclical rhythm of college football.

What is done is done. It sucked…past tense. The sucking will cease when a new band of five-star talents in crimson takes the field with aspirations to carve out its own niche, its own era of dominance, to cast its own handprint in the concrete of Crimson Tide lore. Dwell no longer on that loss, for as Saban himself would say, the best players have the shortest memories…every action, every play, every game, must have a life (and death) of its own. It’s time to let this one die.

In this final look back, we focus not on the loss per se, but rather on the impact the game had on the Alabama program, and how it can help shape the Tide’s future.

A few old lessons relearned

Let’s face it…the men in the jerseys, the guys who pour their sweat and blood into the program, are the ones who lost the most on that night. Likewise, it is those players who remain that have the most to gain by learning from the experience moving forward.

Alabama’s 2016 team was blessed with leadership. Guys like Allen, Tim Williams, Ryan Anderson, and Eddie Jackson were the type of internal combustion engines that drive programs like Alabama to raceway speeds through the inertia of their influence across the roster. They are X’s-and-O’s coaches on the field, motivational counselors to there teammates, and drill sergeants to the younger players who are still learning what it means to don the crimson and white.

Unfortunately, that particular exemplary group of leaders is departing the Capstone on a one-game losing streak, as Allen put it above. As Saban reportedly told the players after the game, that one game does not define the seniors (and their underclassman brethren) who lost in the waning moments of the National Championship Game. It’s hard to comprehend that while still floating in the ebb of the game’s rippling wake, but in terms of the big picture, what the 2016 Tide accomplished was quite amazing, especially for a defense that will go down as one of the top Alabama units in a long history of elite defensive units.

The team exceeded its expectations on many fronts considering the rebuilt (and young) nature of the offense. Saban has never started a true freshman at quarterback…let that sink in a bit. Add to that equation the fact that Bama was introducing a completely new system for said freshman quarterback, and it’s amazing the Tide offense was as prolific as it was throughout the 2016 season. Don’t forget, the offense overachieved with a rebuilt line, a bevy of talented but wholly-unseasoned running backs, and a very rudimentary passing attack. The future ceiling is high, to say the least, as possibly the most impressive assemblage of offensive talent in the SEC gains additional seasoning. But last year, Bama’s offense largely played above its head, which is impressive to say the least considering what they accomplished.

The Tide defense was legendary, however, and don’t be fooled by their eventual faltering in the biggest game of the year. Heading into the season, after the graduation of A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed, and a host of world-wreckers from the 2015 front seven, the concern was always the depth of the 2016 unit. Of course, there was elite, future NFL-caliber talent in the first-string. But behind them, the wave-after-wave of talented pass rushers and run stuffers from 2015 simply wasn’t there. It’s amazing Alabama fared as well as they did in the grueling regular season without that depth, but it is that short-coming that ultimately led to the Tide’s downfall in Tampa. Sometimes, one can see a freight-train of a personnel issue coming from ten miles away, and such was the case with the 2016 roster. It didn’t manifest itself until season’s end, but when it did, it was a fatal flaw from which the Tide couldn’t recover.

There’s an expectation that the same issue will haunt the Tide in 2017, and rightfully so. There’s plenty of talent on the roster, with five-stars everywhere, led by experienced rising junior Daron Payne at tackle and long-time reserve Da’Shawn Hand taking on Allen’s role on the line. Beyond those two, however, there are questions. Depth may develop over the course of the season, but in the short-term, that flaw from the 2016 team will not be immediately repaired, and could once again haunt Alabama if not remediated.

The biggest takeaway from this depth aspect of the championship game is that Alabama must spend some time early in the season developing a solid two-deep rotation of dependable defenders, as the formula of leaning on the starters in 2016 definitely proved to have its limitations. Sure, there were a few role payers that would switch in and out, but generally, the Tide counted on five excellent defenders up front on most snaps. That left those five starters worn down after facing nearly 100 offensive plays, and is the main reason the Tide allowed the game-winning score.

Optimally, Saban will need a bigger corps of elite front seven defenders to offset the advantages created by tempo offenses and to avoid the kind of exhaustion-driven collapse that led to the Tide’s loss against Clemson. There are simply no two ways about it. A team fielding an elite dual-threat quarterback with excellent passing skills who works from a HUNH offense can negate the talent differential and put even the best defense on its heels. It has happened time and time again against Alabama, even when the Tide emerges as victor.

The best (and really, only) way to prevent this is by having a different type of athlete in the front seven (which Bama has recruited to combat the rise of such offenses) and to have two, even three, waves of those defenders playing throughout the early stages of the game. That way, when the cards are on the table in the fourth quarter and the high-powered offense makes its run, the Tide can counter with a corps of elite defensive starters who are still fresh enough to snuff out late charges. The Tide had just that in 2015, and it worked to topple Clemson’s loaded offense that year. In 2016, the depth wasn’t there, and neither were the legs of the Tide defenders as the game wore on. Experience is one of the most elusive characteristics a team can chase, as a team either has it, or it doesn’t. The need is immediate, and the hope is that Saban has contingencies on top of contingencies to mitigate defensive depth from being an issue again next season.

The players needed for this strategy are already on campus thanks to Saban’s recruiting prowess. However, it will take the recognition (and concerted effort) on the part of the coaching staff to get those younger players into the system early to let them gain confidence and prove their ability. Only then can they can be depended upon regularly as the season wears on. Starting the season against an equally-talented FSU team means that may not happen for a few weeks into the season, but if Alabama’s defense is going to retain its elite ranking and undercut HUNH offenses, it simply must happen with the quickness. Developing depth will be key to Alabama’s fortunes in 2017…that can’t be stated enough.

Change can be a good thing…sometimes, less so

Much has been made about the performance of the offense and its impact on the ultimate outcome of the game. Hurts had a typically pedestrian performance as a passer, though his electric running ability impacted the contest as the Tide fought to regain a late lead in the game. The offense put up enough points to win the championship under most circumstances, but Clemson’s offense was probably the best one the Tide faced all season.

Banging on Kiffin/ Sarkisian came into vogue after the championship, and it is easy to do, since both are “former” Bama coordinators rather than current OCs. It’s clear that the tenure of both men at the Capstone was representative of a move by Saban to modernize his traditional, lumbering pro-style offense. On that note, it was an unadulterated success. Alabama’s offense gained a lot of ground schematically, and the willingness to adapt probably paid dividends in recruiting, as the in-flow of offensive skill talent to Tuscaloosa has been nothing short of astounding.

In macro terms, Kiffin (and the style of play he brought) was good for the Tide’s offense, and for Nick Saban’s understanding of offensive trends in the game. But it’d be hard to argue that in 2016 the Tide offense wasn’t hamstrung in some way or another down the stretch, whether one blames that on interior line play, Hurts’ limited passing ability, or the play-calling of an outgoing OC (Lane Kiffin) and/ or a newcomer OC (Steve Sarkisian). At this point, finger-pointing is just emotional clutter that is of little benefit. But there are lessons to be gleaned that can aid the Tide’s success in 2017, and they all start with the offensive system.

Many loved the type of tempo-driven spread offense that Kiffin created at Alabama. The numbers looked great on the stat sheet, and Alabama wore down and blew out inferior competition with regularity. Kiffin brought some swagger to a Tide offense that had always been something of an afterthought to Alabama’s perennially-intimidating defense, and he can be credited with raising expectations for Bama’s O if nothing else.

However, the scheme he ran proved limited in some ways by his own arrogance. Sure, the moving parts were there to fashion an almost unstoppable attack. The stretch runs, the space, the packaged plays and RPOs, the counterstrike plays that took advantage of defensive tendencies…those are tried-and-true aspects of prolific modern offenses. Keep the opposing defense off-balance, create situations that put defenders in space against elite skill talent, and let the players make plays. It’s not rocket science.

But Kiffin (and later, Sarkisian) fell into the trap of over-reaching in devising schemes that were unnecessarily complex at times, and failing to find a rhythm when calling games. When Kiffin was on, he was on. But there were numerous games in his tenure that demonstrated a tendency towards stubbornness (hence the RTDBLK slogan) and a desire to win style points instead of using Alabama’s substantial offensive tools in a more pedestrian (but still ruthlessly effective) way. Rather than pound a nail with a hammer, Kiffin would sometimes use a size 12 Bruno Magli to do the same job. Sarkisian displayed similar tendencies in his one-and-done time at Alabama.

Both men seemed to miss the point of Alabama’s long-standing offensive philosophy…only be as flashy as is required to let the defense win the game. Kiffin tried to paint a Sistine Chapel at times, when all that was really needed to cover the wall was a roller and a can of semi-gloss.

This cuteness caught up with the Tide in the final few games of the season, most notably against Washington and Clemson. It appeared that in the second half of the NCG, Alabama could have run the ball with more dedication and had more success. However, time after time, Sarkisian (like Kiffin before him) forced Hurts to put the ball in the air. It wasn’t the run-pass balance per se that doomed the Tide offense, however, as the types of passes Kiffin and Sarkisian called in the final two games were perplexing. Sure, Bo Scarbrough went down against Clemson, and that hampered the running attack to a degree. But Alabama still had plenty of rushing firepower on deck, and it was more the game plan that doomed the Tide’s rushing attack as the seconds ticked by in the second half of the championship game.

Let’s face it. Alabama is a team that thrives off the run. That has always been the case, and it always will be. Alabama is not Ole Miss, nor is it Texas Tech. “Running the damn ball” is a part of the Tide’s DNA. The defense complements that type of play. Saban loves it, as it represents his roots. The pivot to a more wide-open brand of football was an admirable experiment, and there are concepts inherent in the new wave of football that can only make Alabama better offensively. Spread concepts, after all, were used by some of Bama’s most successful offenses, and there’s no reason to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

But a return to a balance that favors Alabama’s strengths is advisable, and the hiring of Brian Daboll as offensive coordinator is likely indicative that Saban is ready to reel in the offensive experimentation. With Daboll, one can expect to see more of a focus on the type of offense similar to the one Alabama ran in 2011 and 2012, with a few more innovative designs thrown in to stretch the field, get the tight end involved in the passing game, and create space. Daboll’s hiring is reflective of one of the lessons learned in the National Championship Game, and despite his somewhat underwhelming resume as an OC, it is a wise move on Saban’s part to address the 2016 offensive strategy that proved explosive at times, but undependable at others. If we know anything about Saban, it’s that he likes to control variables and create a dependable product, and the switch to Daboll as OC will give him just that.

What effect did the loss have on the players?

What effect did the loss to Clemson have on the players? That remains to be seen. Allen described what it felt like to leave that last championship unclaimed in his final game as a senior, but what about the underclassmen, the building blocks of the Tide’s next championship team? There are really only two ways that branch can break: one positive, the other…less so.

Sometimes, such a heart-stopping loss can crush a team. This should be familiar territory for followers of the Alabama program, only it involves the opposite perspective. After all, Alabama has left a litany of opponents in its wake, shredded by last-second victories grasped by the Tide from which those opponents never recover.

Conversely, a loss like the one Alabama experienced can also prove a catalyst for something completely different, a spring-board that propels a team forward, and insulates it from apathy and entitlement for years to come. Alabama’s loss to Florida in the SEC Championship Game in 2008 set the stage for the Tide to win the ’09 NCG and become the dominant force in college football. The Gators set a high bar, and Bama fell just short of reaching it in ’08 when it appeared to be within grasp. That loss instilled in Bama players how important the little things can be, the slim margin between victory and defeat, and how critical it is to be disciplined enough to do things the right way, every time, all the time. For Saban, such a loss is an instructional tool, and its one that will be wielded often throughout the off-season.

For players who had lost a mere two games in their young careers, the loss to Clemson had to be the most sobering thing to happen to them as collegiate athletes. It was discouraging in the immediate aftermath, to be sure. But judging by the Twitter feeds of Alabama’s underclassmen in the two months since the game, it has also become a precision-dialed focal point in the collective consciousness of the team. The loss taught them that it’s not enough to be considered a five-star recruit. It’s not enough to be talented. It’s not enough to simply work hard. To become champions, every player must control every variable he can harness and turn it to his favor, whether in the weight room, on the practice field, in film study, or at the training table.

This is what Saban calls the “team buy-in,” and it is what separates Alabama from every other program in the nation. It’s the reason Alabama has built a dynasty for which there is no horizon in sight. The loss to Clemson was a back-handed gift for Saban, as his entitlement speech just earned a real-world exhibit of the difference between winning and losing.

Losses like the one to Clemson feed the buy-in of existing players, as adversity, for players with the right attitude, is a steel-on-steel sharpening exercise. Because of that loss, players will work harder in the Fourth Quarter Program. Because of that loss, they will seek out and eliminate weakness in themselves and each other. Because of that loss, there will be a high degree of off-season focus, and it won’t be driven solely by the man in the wide-brimmed hat or the human megaphone known as Scott Cochran, but rather by the team leaders themselves as they work to cut away the necrotized tissue that was that loss to Clemson.

A team never wants to lose, make no mistake. But when Alabama loses, it is something akin to the wildfire-borne regeneration of a longleaf forest. They are built to withstand the fire, and the flames don’t kill, but rather burn off the weakness, leaving only the strong to survive. Just as the fire cycle is necessary for the health of piney woods across the Alabama countryside, a heart-wrenching loss is sometimes necessary for a team to cleanse and clear the mental and emotional underbrush that can only stunt growth. That’s been the case during Saban’s tenure, and the loss to Clemson just heaped a whole new cord of fuel into the Tide’s well-stoked furnace. Future opponents, beware.

What effect did the loss to Clemson have on the program?

On the heels of the loss to Clemson, the national media and Bama-hating rival fan bases were quick to revel in the fall of the king of college football. The Cinderella story was complete, the scrappy upstart had pulled the sword from the stone and used it to slay the lumbering, omnipotent Bama menace. All the archetypes were rolled out in celebration of Clemson’s win: David slew mean-old Goliath anew, Dabo Skywalker had flared a proton torpedo right into Darth Saban’s Death Star. The Bama Dynasty was proclaimed dead, Nick Saban’s reign of terror was finally over. The game of college football was liberated by a guerilla leader from Prattville, et al.

However, the reports of Alabama’s demise are premature, to say the least. Sure, the loss to Clemson was painful, and those waves of suffering undulated across the fabric of Tide Nation are real, to be sure. Everyone invested in the program, from the players to the fans to the coaching staff, felt the sting of that loss.

But there is precedent for such painful losses in the past. It’s happened a few times since Saban has patrolled he sidelines. What the world fails to grasp is that at Alabama under Saban, ANY loss feels like a loss in the National Championship, because the expectations are so high in Tuscaloosa that any loss can be the one that prevents the Tide from attaining another title.

In a concrete sense, the loss to Clemson is already an afterthought in regards to the mechanics of the program. In February, Alabama had yet another top-ranked recruiting class (seven in a row by most accounts) on the heels of the championship loss. Alabama will have a second-year quarterback for the first time since the days of AJ McCarron. Alabama has a returning offensive backfield that features three five-star running backs (plus Josh Jacobs) and a dual-threat QB in Hurts who won SEC Offensive Player of the Year honors in his first campaign. Alabama had the nation’s best wide receiver recruiting class despite a game plan last season that neglected the passing game severely. The Tide defense graduated a lot of talent, but the talent that will emerge this season may be better than the last wave of NFL-bound Tide defenders.

Talk of an end to Alabama’s rule atop college football is foolhardy. Such ramblings are borne more from the collective hopes of a Bama-weary nation than from any concrete measurable. Though they have a few more months of reveling in Bama’s pain, the world will soon learn that Saban and the Crimson Tide is not quite finished with domination just yet.

As long as Nick Saban remains in Alabama, things will change very little, for the Tide and for college football. Alabama may be better some years than others, but that variance will be tight, with teams that can (and have) contended for titles even during “rebuilding years,” such as 2014. If Saban starts struggling to recruit, then worry will be justified. Until then, the ride will likely continue despite small bumps in the road. The loss to Clemson gave Goliath a pretty good knock on the head, to be sure, but the giant is far from felled. If past events are indicative, Alabama will pull itself up off the canvas with redoubled dedication, and will likely be ranked in the top three in the preseason rankings for 2017.

No, the dynasty Saban has meticulously crafted in Tuscaloosa shows no signs of withering or fading. Assistants can come and go, five-star All-American performers can move on to the NFL, schemes can shift and slide with fluidity. But the all-important constant is the standard that Saban has created. Despite the changes across the offensive staff and the departure of multiple seniors and declared juniors, the 2017 edition of the Alabama Crimson Tide will look comfortably similar to the team’s previous incarnations.

When the coach finally decides to pack up Mrs. Terry and head to Lake Burton for good to watch the ducks s*&t on the lawn, Tide fans can wring their hands about the era of greatness nearing its end. Certainly, Saban will turn college football over to the lingering wolves when he is damn well ready, and that day will come too soon for the Tide faithful. But in the meantime, it’s still his world, and he simply allows the rest of college football to dwell in it.

Though Saban is the reason Alabama is enjoying its current era of greatness, the program is bigger than even him. The greatest coach in college football chose Alabama because of what Alabama is. The program is based on winning, to be sure. But it is so much bigger than that. As much as the loss to Clemson hurt, the Tide will continue to rise in its wake, as it has for decades of losses before. It transcends any player, any win or loss, and coach, as has been proven time and time again. Again, Allen explained it particularly well in his parting piece in describing what makes Alabama special while reflecting on the moments, days, and weeks after the championship game:

And that’s when Coach Saban — the man who walked into my house four years ago and gave it to me straight, and who hasn’t stopped giving it to me that way since — gathered us all in the locker room and told us something I’ll never forget. Coach is the kind of guy who can look an entire room in the eye at once. And that’s what he did in that moment. He looked at our whole team … and then he paused for a second.

And then he said: “One game doesn’t define you.”

One loss doesn’t define you.

Now, you might be sitting there, reading this letter, and thinking, I don’t know — that sounds like a pretty throwaway line. You might be thinking about how that just sounds like one of those … Things That Coaches Tell Their Players. Like some tired old football cliché. And the truth is: Spoken by anyone else, yeah, you might be right. It probably would be.

But that’s what makes Coach Saban the coach he is, and what makes this program the program that it will always be. We’ve somehow developed a culture here at Alabama — even with all of the hype that comes with college football — that is based on being real with each other. No bluster. No egos. No worrying about what the rest of the country is up to. Just football … and family … and the reality that we’re in this together.

And so, when someone at Alabama tells you, “We want you in Tuscaloosa” — that means you get yourself to Tuscaloosa. And when someone at Alabama tells you, “Hey, good job” — that means you did a good-ass job. And when one of the greatest coaches in the history of football tells you, “One game doesn’t define you” — then, man, you can rest assured, there’s no cliché about it: One game doesn’t define you.

People on the outside probably imagined us getting chewed out after the Clemson game. Our coach, yelling at us, after we failed to execute. Our fan base, turning against us, after we came up short. But what actually happened that night couldn’t be further from those things. Here’s the truth: The night that I felt most loved, and most supported, by the supposed “win first, everything else second” Alabama football community….

Was after a loss.

That, in a nutshell, is why the dynasty isn’t dead. This is the standard Saban has set, and it’s the standard everyone affiliated with the Crimson Tide has embraced. So long as Saban can get talented, driven young men to commit to be their best, and as long as everyone in the University of Alabama family is devoted to maintaining that standard, things won’t change too terribly much. One single loss to a great championship team isn’t going to change anything about that.

The Tide took a loss. A tough one…driving bamboo shivs beneath one’s fingernails would have been less excruciating. But fear not, for it is not the end. It is only a new beginning for a team loaded with promise, freshly sharpened off the whetstone of adversity.

It’s time to let the past die, and turn the page. The grass is greening, and springs showers have coaxed blossoms from a gasping winter’s brown branches. New beginnings are nigh. Spring practice can’t get here fast enough, as riding on its swift tailwind comes Alabama’s next great chance at starting the dynasty anew and finding solace in a measure of redemption.