By now you've heard the quote.
On Saturday night in Atlanta following Alabama football's 41-24 SEC Championship victory over then-No. 1 Georgia, Crimson Tide coach football coach Nick Saban said something that he had never said before. It might have been meant as a jest towards the media, but everyone knows that with every joke that the 70-year-old coach makes, there's always a hint of truth to his statement.
Inside a crowded media room located deep inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Saban said the following:
“I think what these guys really wanted to gain was more respect,” Saban said. “Not just the fact that they were underdogs because I think we had a tremendous amount of respect for Georgia, their team, and what they accomplished. But you guys gave us a lot of really positive rat poison. The rat poison that you usually give us is usually fatal, but the rat poison that you put out there this week was yummy.”
If you're an Alabama fan, you've likely heard or read that quote at this point. The quote spread like wildfire among the Crimson Tide faithful, spreading to all four corners in a matter of hours. Media outlets both local and national ran away with it, and with good reason.
For the first time in recorded history, Saban admitted to the positive effect of certain special doses of rat poison.
Heading into Alabama's game against Georgia, it was no small secret that the Crimson Tide were the underdogs. After close wins in three of its last four games, the overall narrative was that the Crimson Tide was fading. An underproductive offense and a vulnerable defense were the headlines of the week, while the rest sang the praises of the Bulldogs' incredible defense and solid offensive output.
It was as if Georgia had already won the game before it had even started, and for Alabama? Well, they took that personally.
It's no small secret that the Crimson Tide's offense had been struggling heading into the SEC title game. Alabama opened the month of November by squeaking by an abnormally dysfunctional LSU team. Defensive issues prevent the Crimson Tide from putting away Arkansas, resulting in a one-touchdown victory. Poor offensive line execution resulted in quarterback Bryce Young being sacked seven times against Auburn and forced and Alabama comeback in the fourth quarter and an overtime rally to win.
One look at the team could tell that the Crimson Tide offense had its issues. However, there was one side of the football that had shown remarkable improvement over the course of November: the Alabama defense.
Throwing aside the Arkansas game, Alabama's defense showed a remarkable turnaround in the final third of the season. In the Crimson Tide's 20-14 win over the LSU Tigers, Alabama held its opponent to just six rushing yards. Against New Mexico State, the Crimson Tide held the opposition to just 138 total yards on offense. At Auburn, it held the Tigers to 159 total offensive yards while sacking quarterback T.J. Finley six times.
While the offense hadn't had its best performances of the season, the defense had certainly stepped up over the last month. While the primary focus of critics was so hell-bent on showing the world how ineffective Alabama's offense had become, the Crimson Tide's defense had slowly grown in strength.
“You know, people came in, we was the underdogs, people was saying we was going to get whipped, whooped, blew out, all this other stuff, like — we Alabama, man," Crimson Tide outside linebacker Will Anderson Jr. said after the SEC title game. "We ain’t no D3 team, ain’t none of that. We come to play and we practice hard just like they come to play and practice hard. And I’m not disrespecting Georgia. Georgia has a great football team but sometimes we work hard too for what we want.
"I just don’t get sometimes, I feel like people think we do stuff on purpose. There’s never a day that — offense or defense — we don’t go out there and we don’t try to execute and we don’t play hard and we give it all [we] got. Every play, we do on both sides of the ball. So it’s never a time where one person feels like ‘Oh I don’t feel like…’ — it’s never that. We try to execute, but things happen. So we’re just going to keep rolling off of that.”
Alabama might have won the SEC Championship, but its job isn't finished yet. With the lopsided upset of Georgia, the Crimson Tide secured its spot as the new No. 1 team in the country and will face No. 4 Cincinnati on Dec. 31 in the College Football Playoff Semifinal. Alabama is certainly used to having a target painted on its back after the last 15 years, but things aren't going to ease up just because the Crimson Tide was the underdog for one game.
If Alabama wants to win and advance to the national title game, one thing is certain: it needs to maintain that underdog mindset. That mentality needs to permeate itself among the players and need to resonate as the team's identity. We've seen time and time again this season that when there are certain question marks to Alabama's game, that is when it goes out and executes some surprises.
While the Crimson Tide will likely be favored in the remainder of its games, that underdog mentality could be just what the doctor ordered to conjure up a final push.
“All week long, we had a chip on our shoulder,” Anderson said on the team's mentality heading into the Georgia game. “Every day on good-on-good, we was going back and forth with each other because all we was hearing was ‘Their o-line is nasty and mean.’ All we kept hearing was ‘They have the best defensive front in the country’ and stuff like this.’ And so in good-on-good periods it was iron sharpens iron. You’re going to see the best every day in practice and we both had a chip on our shoulder and I’m so proud of those guys."
So how does one maintain an underdog mindset even when you're not and underdog? It's quite simple, really. In order to sustain that mindset, the Crimson Tide should do what it already accomplished last week: approach the game with no expectations of losing. Use all of the praises of the other team and redirect them into motivation. However, while it might be simple, it's a tricky line to traverse.
There is a fine line that separates expecting to win and assuming to win. On paper, those two things might sound the same. In reality, though, they are quite different. When one expects to win, they are recognizing their personal strengths and put in the work to prove just how incorrect the naysayers were. It involves practice, discipline and willpower.
Assuming to win has its own swagger, but in the end the results can be disastrous. Look at Alabama's loss at Texas A&M, for example. That was a game that, heading into it, Saban repeatedly exclaimed his frustration with players growing lackadaisical and assuming the victory. When you assume you're going to win, you subconsciously don't work as hard and fail to put in the effort necessary. While sometimes a win can still be earned depending on the opponent, it doesn't always worked out. The Crimson Tide's loss at the hands of the Aggies or its close win over the LSU Tigers prove just that.
So what can be a good tool to ensure that your team is expecting to win rather than assuming it will win? Well, maintaining an underdog mentality is a solid indicator. No matter what the media pundits say or what outside voices shout the loudest, Alabama needs to solely focus on executing what it needs to perform and work on what it needs to improve. And last Saturday night, the Crimson Tide saw a solid example in Atlanta as to what can happen when a team has that mentality.
“I know to the outside world we were underdogs but to the guys in this locker room — the guys and coaches in this program — we never feel like the underdog,” defensive back DeMarcco Hellams said after the SEC title game. “We never feel like we were approaching the game expecting to lose. We come out every game expecting to go 1-0 so we just took that as a sign of disrespect for everyone who doubted us, everyone who doubted this defense, everyone who doubted this offense and we came out to make a statement today."