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  • Even though it wasn't sure it was going to be in the College Football Playoff until the foursome was announced, Alabama remains Alabama and not some unlikely contender for the title.
By Joan Niesen
December 30, 2017

NEW ORLEANS — They’re cold, calculated. Their wins are powered by boredom, by saying nothing and pulverizing their opponents. They’re the Alabama Crimson Tide. Or they were.

Don’t get me wrong: This Crimson Tide team is an exceptional football machine. In a year with three clear playoff teams and a fourth spot up for grabs, it deserved its seed, deserved a chance to be here. But for the first time since the playoff’s inception, Alabama is not favored in its semifinal game. It’s coming off a loss to its Monday opponent, Clemson, in last year’s title game and, more recently, a season-ending defeat at the hands of Auburn in the Iron Bowl. In fact, on Saturday at the Sugar Bowl Media Day, a reporter had the audacity to ask Nick Saban about his team’s somewhat unorthodox path to New Orleans: No Iron Bowl win, no SEC championship, wondering if it’d get in as the seeds were announced.

And Saban actually answered.

It was the kind of question you’d think he’d breeze through. Doesn’t matter. Irrelevant to the task at hand. We’re here, aren’t we? But instead, the coach talked about his team making the most of its losses in a speech that somewhat inexplicably touched upon Jimmy Garoppolo’s elevation of the 49ers. “When we lost last year in the playoffs, we made the statement to the players that you don't want to waste a failing, that you want to learn from the mistakes that you made and grow from those things,” Saban said. “I think our players did that throughout the course of the season. We didn't finish the season like we wanted to, which sort of put our fate in someone else's hands. We didn't control our own destiny to some degree.”

It’s bizarre, hearing Alabama’s players talk about agonizing over watching film of their losses while the traveling circus that is Clemson poses with selfie sticks and behaves as if the looming prospect of facing the Crimson Tide is just an utter delight. Nothing makes sense anymore.

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There’s been this sense all week that Alabama is beleaguered, humbled—despite the fact that Vegas favors it in the upcoming semifinal game against the country’s No. 1 team. The team is acting the part of David when it’s been Goliath for the past decade. Last January, a player Dabo Swinney described as being “weak as a noodle” upon arriving at college was the instrument of the Tide’s defeat, and now wiry Hunter Renfrow, who looks the part of the captain of an intramural baseball team, is nightmare fuel for Alabama, not the other way around. Nothing is as it seems, as it was, as anyone thought it would be back in August when Alabama was No. 1 and a Deshaun Watson-less Clemson No. 5.

But back to Saturday, where things got even more bizarre: Saban, in discussing how he grew Alabama into the behemoth it is, suggested he might not believe anything short of perfection is a failure. “I don't think, he said, “that you always can judge this whole thing as to whether you win the national championship or not.”

What?

Alabama has never been the most interesting team or the most charismatic. It’s always been the closest to perfect, though, the well-oiled machine that balks at even the suggestion of a flaw. Now, it’s bizarrely thoughtful, which is at times delightful—but jarring. “Ending the season the way we did and having our fate in the hands of the selection committee hurt,” defensive back Ronnie Harrison said Saturday. “We just want to prove that we are supposed to be here.”

Alabama never has to prove it belongs. It wins all of its games some years, all but one in others. It’s been a shoe-in for the playoff every year until now. It can play the likes of Chattanooga and Charleston Southern, and no one blinks an eye until it trounces Mercer and then loses the Iron Bowl, and suddenly those non-major opponents are a pox. Really, no matter how good or bad this year’s team is, Alabama has been held to an impossible standard in the wake of losing a game to Clemson on its final play last January. This three-peat of games against Clemson has proven the Tigers can play with the Tide and beat them 50% of the time, but little else. It’s hardly the sack of Rome. Sure, Alabama’s reputation helped eke it into the playoff over Ohio State and USC, but it played more than well enough to earn a spot in the conversation.

Change is good. Torches must be passed. But this weird sense that the Tide has something to prove—a sense the team has played into all week—is premature. It’s either a black cloud hanging over Alabama, which has been driven batty by its losses, or it’s a mind game. My money’s on the latter.

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