NEW ORLEANS — With nothing better to do on the night of Dec. 2, Bradley Bozeman went to a restaurant in Birmingham and watched football.
It was a helpless feeling for the fifth-year senior Alabama center. For the previous three seasons, Bozeman and his teammates had been playing on the first Saturday of December in the Southeastern Conference championship game and punching their ticket to the College Football Playoff. This time, their playoff fate was out of their hands.
So Bozeman, teammate Ross Pierschbacher and their girlfriends settled in to watch the Big Ten championship game with a very specific rooting interest. They needed Ohio State to beat Wisconsin, but they didn’t want the Buckeyes to blow the Badgers out.
“I thought it looked good for us,” he said. “I think my girlfriend was freaking out more than I was.”
Selection Sunday began with the same mindset.
“I was very confident at the start of the day that we were in,” Bozeman said. “But by the time [the selection show] was on, I was just a big ball of nerves.”
In the end, it all worked out from an Alabama perspective. The tension and disappointment that arose in the wake of losing the Iron Bowl to Auburn dissipated when the Tide made the playoff for the fourth straight season. They were back in familiar territory, but with an unfamiliar aura.
Instead of stampeding into the playoff with zero doubts about belonging, mighty Alabama had almost backed in. Amid plenty of external doubt. The schedule was nitpicked, the quality of Alabama’s 11 wins was questioned, the lack of division or conference championships was duly noted.
But if you think the Tide is going to apologize for its playoff berth, you’re quite mistaken.
“We’re not worried about what anybody thinks, and who should have been the fourth seed,” running back Damien Harris said. “None of that matters.”
All that matters now for Alabama is a third consecutive playoff clash with Clemson, the top seed in the four-team tournament. Despite the difference in seeding, ‘Bama opened as a slight favorite (1½ points). The money has continued to pour into Las Vegas on the Tide, pumping the line up to three points.
So, no, they are not approaching this game with an underdog’s mentality because they’re not the underdog. But there is a newfound appreciation for the opportunity to play for a national championship, after coming very close to losing that opportunity.
“This gave us a new life,” Bozeman said. “A new breath.”
Rejuvenated and revenge-minded, after last year’s literal last-second loss to Clemson. Alabama has some spring in its collective step.
“When you leave your fate in someone else’s hands, it doesn’t always work out in your favor,” Harris said. “Now we’re back in the driver’s seat to control what we can control.”
That begins with focus and effort. By all internal accounts, Alabama is more locked at this stage this year than it was last year.
The Lane Kiffin-related tumult is absent this time around. Alabama’s 2015 offensive coordinator was coaching with one foot out the door on his way to Florida Atlantic last season, and it showed in a disjointed semifinal performance against Washington. That led to head coach Nick Saban pushing Kiffin out the door before the title game against Clemson, an unprecedented bit of upheaval that certainly didn’t help Alabama heading into the biggest game of the year.
There is coordinator turnover again this season, with defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt ticketed for Tennessee as soon as Alabama’s season ends. But Pruitt made it clear Friday that he wasn’t here to talk about the next job while he’s still immersed in the current job. Expect this transition to be more like Kirby Smart’s in 2015, when Smart coordinated the Tide’s defense before heading to Georgia.
But the sharpened focus seems to go beyond the coaching staff. Way back in July, Alabama players alluded to lapses in player leadership heading into the 2016 playoff — NFL decisions created distractions for some players. There were lessons learned from that, it seems.
“My guys are preparing like crazy,” Bozeman said. “I’ve never been around a group preparing as hard as this one.”
Preparing doesn’t always equal winning, of course. This Alabama team has appeared more vulnerable than some previous powerhouses — less dominant on the offensive line, less explosive in the passing game, less imposing and intimidating defensively.
In three November games against quality competition — LSU, Mississippi State, Auburn — Alabama averaged a pedestrian 23 points and 351 yards total offense. A defense dealing with a rash of injuries surrendered 491 rushing yards in those games, and six of the eight rushing touchdowns the Tide allowed on the season.
‘Bama is more healthy now after five weeks off. And more appreciative of the playoff bid that very nearly escaped it.
“We didn’t like the way we finished,” Harris said. “We knew that if we had the opportunity to be in the playoff, we would do whatever it takes to win.”
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