Maybe the loss at Auburn was a warning shot. Or was it the narrow victory at Texas A&M? Possibly the lackluster performances against Colorado State and Mississippi State?
Whenever the signs came that Alabama wasn't all it was cracked up to be, very few, if anyone, saw it coming. But looking back, maybe it all makes sense.
Alabama wasn't the best team in the country Wednesday night. It wasn't even the best team in the Superdome.
The narrative that Alabama would come out in the Sugar Bowl and prove again that it was worthy of being thought of as No. 1 ultimately proved misguided and downright untrue. The team's every flaw was exposed. Every one of Alabama's weaknesses was exploited.
This time there was no kicker to blame. This time it couldn't be chalked up to Lady Luck.
The only championship-caliber team in New Orleans was the one that entered the game a 14-point underdog. And if the way you end a season says anything about how you'll start the next, then Oklahoma should begin next season ranked ahead of Alabama by a mile.
The Sooners' future is undeniably promising. But the Tide's future is now best described as a series of question marks.
AJ McCarron looked nothing like himself Thursday night, throwing multiple interceptions in a game for just the third time in his career. It was a terrible way for him to leave things at Alabama -- one week a Heisman Trophy finalist, the next a scapegoat. But what's worse is that no one knows who will take over for him in the spring. Will it be the mobile quarterback Blake Sims? The soon-to-be redshirt sophomore Alec Morris? What about the three freshmen: Cooper Bateman, Luke Del Rio and Parker McLeod?
What Alabama wouldn't give to have someone with a future as bright as Oklahoma's Trevor Knight. The last quarterback to improve that much in New Orleans was McCarron in early 2012.
But the problems ahead are much deeper than who's under center. It goes even deeper than who will protect him. Left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio looks like he needs another year to develop, and even if he returns, Alabama will have to replace veteran right guard Anthony Steen. Leon Brown played OK in his stead, but the chemistry of the entire line was way off. Simply put, you can't give up seven sacks and expect to win many games.
Alabama's defense has to go back to the drawing board, too. All of it.
It's not just the secondary that was atrocious. The big plays speak for themselves, but two true freshmen were on the field at cornerback at one point against Oklahoma. Maurice Smith and Eddie Jackson will get better with time. Maybe Cyrus Jones or Bradley Sylve will emerge. Vinnie Sunseri will return at safety to provide some needed leadership and Landon Collins will mature alongside him.
The front seven needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror and find a way to help the back end of the defense. There were times where Alabama put pressure on Knight, but rarely did it finish the play. Saban might not think sacks are important, but having just one is pretty glaring. Freshmen defensive linemen A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen have shown promise. It's time to let them loose. If Adrian Hubbard and Denzel Devall aren't bringing the heat at outside linebacker, someone needs to.
Like McCarron, C.J. Mosley did everything he could to end his career on a high note. But Alabama's back-to-back All-American linebacker couldn't do it all on his own, even though there were times this season where it looked like he could. Trey DePriest, his heir apparent, will now have to shoulder that heavy burden. As Saban attempts to solve the riddle of no-huddle and spread offenses, DePriest will be his centerpiece.
In fact, the entire coaching staff has questions to answer. Yes, even Saban.
Saban and Kirby Smart have seen their defense get exposed one too many times by more developed offenses such as Oklahoma and Auburn. When the pace has picked up, Alabama has been left behind. When quarterbacks have been able to escape the pocket, Alabama has been left holding the bag. Giving up 822 yards in the final two games should be a wake-up call for the entire staff to rethink the way it answers offenses on both fronts.
And don't think that offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier isn't in the same boat. He can no longer afford to leave weapons such as Derrick Henry and O.J. Howard hanging on the shelf. He can't abandon the run and expect his quarterback to save him. Balance always has been preached at Alabama, but it's not always been practiced, and that has to change. The Tide needs an offense that can make up a double-digit deficit in a hurry because the one it's trotted out the last few years has never been capable of that.
But even with all that, don't expect Saban to abandon his process. Wholesale changes aren't likely. Multiple times after the game, Saban said how his is a proven formula. He's focusing instead on how the loss was more of a signal to recommit to it. And maybe he's right.
From afar, the Sugar Bowl has the look of an outlier in a mountain of evidence supporting Saban's way of doing things. But this season showed some of the cracks in its foundation, cracks that could grow into more devastating gaps with time and pressure.
Oklahoma wasn't the only one to expose Alabama. Auburn was the first team to beat the Tide, and Texas A&M, Mississippi State and even Colorado State delivered blows of their own, even in defeat. With each flaw they revealed, a blueprint emerged: Pressure the quarterback, try for turnovers, push the tempo.
At the end of it all, the truth was obvious: Alabama not only wasn't the best team in the country this season, it has a lot of work to do moving forward to regain that title.