The 2015 off-season seemed a lot longer in Tuscaloosa, Alabama than off-seasons of the past. For the first time since 2009, Alabama ended the season without a national championship for the second consecutive year.
The players, whether they admitted it or not, heard the talk in the offseason. They heard the chatter of Alabama's waning influence, its lack of a star quarterback and its vulnerability to mobile quarterbacks and spread offenses.
After blowout victories in recent BCS Championship games against Notre Dame and LSU, it seemed like coach Nick Saban was unbeatable with weeks to prepare when it mattered most. Under Saban, Alabama is currently a combined 10–1 in neutral site openers against Power 5 competition, BCS national championships and College Football Playoff semifinal games.
The one loss was against Ohio State in the College Football Playoff semifinal last season. That loss not only prevented Alabama from claiming another national championship, it also tarnished Saban's image of invincibility.
The price was high, but that loss to the Buckeyes, and all the talk and humbling that came with it, is exactly why the Crimson Tide will defeat Clemson on Monday to claim the school's 16th national championship.
Back in August, Saban talked about Alabama's need to rediscover its identity.
"The dynamics of Alabama football has changed a little bit over the last couple of years," Saban said. "I have been anxious to get back to what we used to do."
Later that afternoon Dillon Lee, who intercepted Michigan State's Conner Cook late in the fourth quarter to preserve Alabama's 38–0 shutout victory over the Spartans, elaborated a little bit on what kind of identity this team wanted to have.
"We just want to be a team that nobody wants to play," Lee said. "We just want people to hate playing us and really just be a nightmare for our opponents."Tom Pennington/Getty Images
Earlier this season, Alabama beat then-No. 8 Georgia and Nick Chubb by 28 points in Athens. Later in the season Alabama beat then No. 2 LSU by 14 points, and became the only school this season to hold Leonard Fournette from recording over 100 all-purpose yards.
Who exactly wants to play Alabama right now?
In the offseason several members of Alabama's talented and deep front seven lost weight to better prepare themselves for faster offenses and mobile quarterbacks. The hard work seems to have paid off. No offense outside of Texas A&M, excluding the turnover-riddled Ole Miss game, has managed to score more than 17 points on the Crimson Tide.
Jonathan Allen and situational pass-rusher Tim Williams both recorded double digit sacks this season. The Crimson Tide sacked Cook four times on New Year's Eve and the defense is averaging over one interception per game. On the offensive side of the ball, Heisman-winning running back Derrick Henry is currently averaging 5.7 yards per carry and has found the end zone 25 times this season.
Even if Clemson's defense can do what no one else has been able to do and stops Henry, Alabama is likely feeling confident after quarterback Jake Coker's exceptional performance against the Spartans. Coker went 25-for-30 for a career-high 286 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Gone are the days where students panic when Coker throws instead of handing it off or when an opposing quarterback takes off for a run. Even kicker Adam Griffith, whose appearance used to be met with nothing short of sheer panic in the Alabama student section, has made 16 of his last 18 kicks.
In Saban's five combined BCS title and semifinal games at Alabama, the Crimson Tide has outscored the opponent by an average of 19.2 points, even with the loss to Ohio State.
Saban wanted Alabama to get back to its old ways, and this team seems to have figured it out. After all, what's more Alabama than dominating an opponent with a suffocating defense and a methodical offense on a national stage?
It's hard to like Clemson's chances.
Tyler Waldrep is SI's campus correspondent for the University of Alabama. Follow him on Twitter.