TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The photo was on his cell phone for a long time, to serve as both a reminder and motivation.
It was of Clemson celebrating with the national championship trophy after defeating Alabama 35-31 last January. Quarterback Jalen Hurts had run in what he thought would be a game-winning touchdown on nearly any other night, only to see the Tigers top it with one second remaining to steal the title.
It was a feeling that he never wanted to forget.
“When you lose to a team, you like to get another chance to play them again,” Hurts said Saturday, thinking back to his first loss at the collegiate level. “That’s like when you’re playing your big brother in NCAA, and he kind of (gets) after you the first time. You want to play him again.
“I think everybody likes a second chance.”
Yes, Alabama is getting one, both in terms of having a shot at this season’s national championship and some possible payback at the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1 (8:45 p.m. ET, ESPN).
A year after Clemson was able to avenge the previous national title game, Alabama would like nothing better than to return the favor after squeezing into the College Football Playoff. The selection committee granted it the opportunity after finishing the regular season 11-1, even though it meant selecting a second team from one conference for the first time.
Justifying the committee’s decision isn’t so much on Alabama’s radar – it feels it belongs despite not having played for the Southeastern Conference championship. Regardless, the Crimson Tide can’t do anything about that now, and there are far bigger things on everyone’s mind — including what’s at stake and the task at hand.
It’s Clemson that is the top-seeded team in the tournament, not Alabama.
“You don’t want to dwell on the past and we don’t want to get caught up in this being an emotional game, like they beat us last year so we have to do something different in order to beat them this year,” Hurts said. “I mean, in the offseason, I think that really fueled us. Our whole motto was finishing.
“But now, we’re just focused on us and we’re focused on playing our best football.”
What’s different, though, is that Alabama became the first playoff team that’s coming off a loss, 26-14 to Auburn, its biggest rival. The Crimson Tide’s regular-season dud finale on the road at Auburn has been lingering, if not festering, ever since.
The players didn’t have the advantage of getting back on the field and trying to quickly put it behind them. The coaches hit the recruiting trail.
The fans? In some ways they’ve been struggling with it the most, and placing blame. There’s been plenty to go around — and that includes the starting quarterback.
. @SeniorBowlPhil: “Alabama struggled to protect the passer on a consistent basis against Auburn. Jalen Hurts was not able to set into the pocket and push forward.”
— Opening Drive (@openingdrive) November 29, 2017
“I ain’t perfect,” Hurts said. “Far from that. I live and I learn.
“Michael Jordan said that the other day. You don’t lose, you learn. I don’t lose, I learn. I think we’ve learned from a lot of things this year. Even last year’s loss. How can we show the world we’ve learned? How far have we [come]? I think we’re trying to get better right now. We’re learning from it and trying to continue to improve and show it on New Year’s Day.”
Alabama still has a couple of weeks of preparation sandwiched around Christmas break, but it knows better than anyone just how tough of an opponent Clemson has become. Under the direction of former Alabama player Dabo Swinney, the Tigers have gone from being the school known for “Clemsoning” to a destination school.
It’s been a remarkable turnaround, matching Alabama the last couple of years, and looking to take the reins away from Nick Saban as the driving force in college football. Five points separated the teams two seasons ago, and four in the most recent national championship meeting.
“They were just both epic games,” Alabama junior running back Damien Harris said. “I’m sure this will be the same.”
So, yes, revenge may be at hand as the Crimson Tide prepare for the third round of the new rivalry, but it’s not the primary emphasis.
If anything, Alabama wants to keep revenge from being too much a factor.
“We have to keep our composure and know that they are going to give us all they’ve got, and we’ve got to do the same,” said Crimson Tide senior cornerback Levi Wallace, who doesn’t believe any extra motivation is necessary.
“To be the best, you have to beat the best. They are No. 1 right now. After last year, that game just never quite settled with us. So we’re glad that we’re playing them.”
Meanwhile, Hurts no longer looks at the celebratory photo. He changed it after getting a new phone, but chose a replacement with the same sentiment — and providing a secondary message to keep his focus on himself . It’s of him walking off the field at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, moments after the loss.
“I don’t look at it like, ‘Dang, I lost to Clemson.’ I don’t do that every time,” he said. “But it’s definitely there, it’s definitely a motivating factor and it’s always been. We all get the opportunity to kind of redeem ourselves and show the world what we are and who we are at Alabama. So we’re looking forward to it.”
And you know what happens to that photo should Alabama win.
“Hopefully I can remove it,” Hurts said.
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