Entering the 2013 season, Alabama -- as usual -- faced immense expectations. It was ranked No. 1 in the preseason AP Poll, and coach Nick Saban's team was favored to win its third consecutive BCS championship. Talk of a dynasty in Tuscaloosa was certainly not misplaced.
Things didn't pan out as planned. After an 11-0 start, the Crimson Tide lost the Iron Bowl to Auburn and the Sugar Bowl to Oklahoma. Alabama's poor finish caused graduating quarterback AJ McCarron to diagnose the 2013 Tide with an "entitlement" problem on Rome last week.
“We had a lot of young guys,” said McCarron. “In the end, success was our killer. Too much success and a lot of young guys coming in who didn’t know what it took to get back to that point to win. They thought we’d just show up and we’d win.”
“I think that’s one of the things that is wrong with recruiting out of high school,” said McCarron. “You have guys who have never played the game of football rating these guys that they are a 5-star, because they’re sitting behind a computer screen watching their highlight film. Well, their highlight film is supposed to be good, the last time I checked. That’s the kind of thing that ticks me off about recruiting and when these kids come in and they’re 5-stars and they expect to play right off the bat. It’s a little entitlement and when they don’t play off the bat, they get a little ticked off and they don’t want to work.”
McCarron's remarks prompt two questions: Is his assessment accurate? And if so, why did a sense of entitlement plague this year's 'Bama team and not Saban's past title-winning rosters? On National Signing Day, Saban brushed off McCarron's comments, saying the team's primary contributors displayed the necessary focus.
"I don't think it was an issue on the field because none of those guys were out there playing," Saban said Wednesday. "I think if it was an issue out there for any of our players who where playing, they need to check their maturity level because the guys that were out there playing did not have that issue."
So, what was the atmosphere surrounding Alabama's football program really like? To get a better idea, perhaps it's best to reexamine some of Saban's most noteworthy quotes.
"There are no external factors that matter at all, to any player on our team. It's all about how they perform in this game. It's not what they did last year. It's not about their girlfriend. It's not about anything but playing this game. Playing your game, A game, preparing for this game, focusing on each play of this game. If you can do that, then none of those other things matter. None of means anything unless you make it mean something."
Saban harps on expectations more than any coach because, well, his teams are often perceived as robotic, inevitable winning machines. (See: The Process.) But in the week leading up to Alabama's 2013 season opener against Virginia Tech, he was quick to point out that winning isn't a given. 'Bama's back-to-back titles didn't mean anything this season. The Tide entered their matchup with the Hokies as heavy favorites, and even in the eventual 35-10 win in Atlanta, they were far from perfect.
"It was his sixth championship, the third time they won three in a row, and [Michael Jordan] is playing at 35-years-old like there's no tomorrow. It's interesting that a guy with nothing to prove is playing like there's everything to prove. That's what our team needs to do."
After Alabama handled the Hokies in Atlanta, Saban was open about his team's sloppy play. It seems he felt that expectations -- or the seemingly incessant dynasty talk -- had gotten into his players' heads. The majority of his roster had a BCS title ring. They had little left to prove. In retrospect, an anecdote about Michael Jordan's mentality seems particularly telling.
"We improved as a team. Obviously we haven't put it all together yet. When you lose 30 percent of your team, you have to develop chemistry on your team. I think that's starting to happen with this team. This was a great win for our players today."
Two weeks after beating Virginia Tech, Alabama won a 49-42 shootout at Texas A&M. Saban praised his team's offensive improvement, as the attack amassed 570 total yards. Saban wasn't without criticism, however; he pointed to the Tide's defense as a work in progress.
"I think most of the time people have a real sense of urgency and they have a lot of mental energy. They need to have the willingness to prepare and do the things they need to do so that they can play with consistency and bring it to the game. That's what we're looking for. We have not done that with consistency this year, and I don't think we did it tonight so we're going to keep working on it."
Alabama's 31-6 win over Colorado State wasn't as easy as the final score indicates. 'Bama only scored one offensive touchdown through three quarters before putting the game away in the fourth. Through three games, the Tide were inconsistent, and Saban made it clear there was plenty of work to be done.
"There's a lot of anxiety on our team because of the expectations that everybody has for the team," Saban said. "I think rather than having all these expectations, I think we should turn the expectations into just being supportive."
"I think we need more of that on our team and we need people to be more supportive of this team," Saban said. "I said this team has to create its own identity. Our fans can help us do that by the energy and enthusiasm they have rather than being disappointed in the expectations they might have had because this can be a really good team if we continue to improve."
Before Alabama's fourth game against Ole Miss, Saban talked again about outside expectations. His message hinted that he could feel the external pressure weighing heavily on his team.
"When you play against good teams, you've got to stay with it the whole time. This is a good team that we're playing. These games always come down to three or four plays every game and you don't know when they're coming up. Everybody's got to do their job every play so they're in the best position to make a play when they get the chance."
At this point, the Tide had powered through the first half of their SEC schedule with four wins (against Ole Miss, Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee) by a combined score of 170-17. Their next game was against LSU on Nov. 9.
"I was really proud of our players in the second half. I thought they did a fantastic job and probably played our best half of football. It wasn’t perfect, and we didn’t play great in the first half, but [there was] a lot of character out there in the second half to control the line of scrimmage the way we did on offense. ... Our guys did a great job of keeping their poise and staying focused on the things that they needed to do. [They] had to overcome some adversity in the game, but [I’m] really pleased with the way we got control of the game in the second half."
This was perhaps the highest praise Saban heaped on his team in 2013. Alabama beat LSU 38-17 behind three touchdown passes from McCarron. Saban noted his team's poise and focus (it committed zero turnovers) in what would be its biggest test before the Iron Bowl in the regular-season finale. It seemed Alabama was hitting its stride at the perfect time.
"I still think we have one of the best teams in the country. I do not think we played our best game today. Everyone knew what was at stake and we did not make the plays when we needed to make them. That responsibility starts with me and every player on the team and every coach in terms of how we contributed to what we did today. The ultimate responsibility is mine. I am very, very proud of this team, the improvements they made, the way they competed and played all year, and the way they competed today. We just did not make the plays when we needed to make them."
Alabama sunk Mississippi State and Chattanooga before falling at Auburn on Chris Davis' last-second missed field goal return for a touchdown. The loss not only ended the Crimson Tide's bid for an unbeaten season, but it ended their hopes for a BCS three-peat. Saban touched on his team's shortcomings, but also expressed pride over everything it had accomplished. With a loss, however, 'Bama's players would face an entirely new mental challenge.
"It's very important to see how players react to disappointment. I don't think there's any question about the fact that you have a lot of regret when you play in a game like that, a very physical tough game, and things don't work out very well. You didn't execute down the stretch like you needed to to have a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter. I think the key to the drill is, how do you respond to that? How do you respond to the disappointment? There will be a lot of regret surround it if you don't prepare yourself properly to do the things you need to do and play the best football. That's what our players have to have the maturity to realize."
An Alabama team with BCS title aspirations found itself opposite Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, and Saban knew his players were disappointed. The 2013 Tide had never been forced to come to grips with defeat. Saban's biggest concern was how they'd bounce back.
"I think one of our players said it best: Our victory is what defeated us. When you win, sometimes you start to lose focus on the things that are important to being successful. The process of things that you do to pay attention to detail, play with discipline, do the little things correctly, all of a sudden don't seem as important and you don't practice as well, you don't prepare as well, you don't pay attention to these things, and all of a sudden, it starts to show up in your play."
On the day before the Sugar Bowl, Saban alluded to what McCarron said last week: Victory essentially spoiled Alabama's players.
"There's certainly some lessons to be learned and things that we can build on for the future... Some of the things tonight did not allow us to be successful.... I think when you have the kind of success that we have had in the past, it doesn't happen by accident. I think it takes a lot of hard work and a lot of people have to buy into things that take very high standards.... We certainly didn't play up to that standard tonight.
"We're all responsible for that. As a coach and a coaching staff, we need to do a much better job of getting our players out there prepared to play."
It sounded like a broken record at this point, but the truth really sunk in after Alabama was dominated in a 45-31 loss to Oklahoma. The Crimson Tide turned the ball over five times and ultimately confirmed Saban's suspicion that disappointment would negatively impact his roster.