They were caught worrying about other things.
They weren’t prepared for how good Cardale Jones would be.
They ran out of gas.
Of the many excuses we heard for why Alabama lost in the College Football Playoff semifinal against Ohio State, these were the most noteworthy.
In and around the program, the loss was rationalized. Players believed that if only they’d done things differently before the game, the outcome wouldn’t have been what it was.
“We just haven’t finished the season very well the last two years,” coach Nick Saban told ESPN.com at SEC media days in July. “The whole approach of how we get ready for the season and how we practice during the season are all things we may need to reevaluate a little bit.”
Saban threw out Alabama’s use of the hurry-up, for instance. He said that the extra plays added up to two and half more games, and that he would use the offseason to research how other programs practice to account for the increased workload.
What Alabama learned in those studies is largely a mystery, though. The defensive line rotates more players than in the past and the defense as a whole has had to defend 57 fewer plays than at this time a year ago. And if the injury report is any indication, then Alabama is in a good place. Before the SEC title game, Jonathan Allen said he and the other D-linemen “feel very fresh.”
But feeling well and preparing well are two different things. As Saban put it last week, “The first thing we take away [from the playoff last season] is that we didn’t have very much success.”
“It’s a new recipe that maybe we learned a little bit about,” he explained, “and maybe we’ll do a better job this time around in preparation.”
The good news for Alabama is that unlike Ohio State a year ago, much of what Michigan State does on both sides of the ball mirrors their own philosophies. Defending quarterback Connor Cook will be a challenge, but the fact that he’s a pro-style passer is better than the alternative of a dual-threat QB like Deshaun Watson or Baker Mayfield.
With so much time between the conference title game and the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, the bigger question for Alabama is how players focus on the task at hand.
“We’re going to go in with the right mindset this time,” said senior linebacker Reggie Ragland. “We’ve got to.”
At the end of the day, we won’t know whether Alabama learned anything until the game is over and we know whether the Tide have advanced or not.
If one practice is any indication, though, Saban feels better about his players’ attitude this time around, compared to the sense he got last year when he said players felt "entitled" after winning the SEC.
“Look, this is a new season," he said. "So when you get into a new season, what you've done in the past doesn't have anything to do with what you'll do moving forward. It's hard to carry the momentum of the season into a game that's 3.5-4 weeks from the last time you played. So the players need to refocus. They can be happy about what they've accomplished, but they also can't be satisfied.
"I asked the players, 'Are you satisfied? And not only are you not satisfied, are you willing to do the work you need to do to play really good teams like we're going to have to play in playoffs?' There's no easy way to do that.
"Based on how they started out today, I would say that part of their attitude is a lot better."