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December 17, 2013
Alabama trying avoid another Sugar Bowl letdown
The lessons learned five years ago are the same ones Nick Saban draws upon now to try to prevent a similar occurrence from befalling his team.
It jumped up and bit the University of Alabama in 2008. After a hard-to-stomach loss to Florida in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game, a crestfallen Crimson Tide team fell victim to a letdown in the Sugar Bowl.
Never mind that it was the program's first BCS bowl game appearance in nearly a decade, the sting of coming so close to playing for a national title and falling short was too much to overcome. Utah took advantage in a 31-17 Sugar Bowl victory.
Now, Alabama heads back to New Orleans after its last game also cost it a chance at a national championship game appearance.
Saban couldn't overcome the letdown then. Can he avoid it now?
He's hoping that previous experience, in addition to the costly consequences experienced after the Iron Bowl, are enough for a sense of urgency for UA to prepare and play the "Saban Way" against Oklahoma.
"I think the lessons to be learned are, 'What did you do so that it affected your ability to be successful?' " Saban said. "We didn't finish plays. We had lots of mental errors. So there were a lot of lessons to be learned, and we kind of let it happen. We didn't continue to work on the things that have always made us a good football team and a good football program here."
No current player can draw upon that experience of being embarrassed to the Utes in 2008, though that hasn't prevented Saban from warning his team that a similar fate awaits if it doesn't have a short memory.
"Coach keeps bringing up the Utah thing," Cyrus Kouandjio said. "We shouldn't let the last loss bring us down to the point where we keep hang-dogging and just hanging our heads and lose (the bowl) too."
Alabama hit the field for its first practice since the Iron Bowl on Tuesday, the first in preparation for a 10-2 Oklahoma team that beat its in-state rival.
Lessons learned aside, just the name Oklahoma may serve as Saban's biggest motivational aide. Crimson Tide players know the name Bob Stoops. They've seen Adrian Peterson's exploits. The same wasn't the case in 2008 with Utah.
"It's always great to play a team that has the same tradition as us," senior wide receiver Kevin Norwood said.
Senior defensive lineman Jeoffrey Pagan said the team wants to send the senior class out on top.
"It's not for a national championship or anything, but we're going to go into it like it is," he said.
For Saban, it's about learning from mistakes.
"I think every guy's got to change his habits and get back on track so that we can do things," Saban said. "That's what I mean talking about finishing plays, playing with discipline, doing your job, being a good team member, not being selfish, not being jealous about somebody else, not being disgruntled. There's all kind of lessons to be learned. But when you do all those things you have consequences and they're not good ones. I said all year long to our team ,'Can we do these things without having some bad crisis happen to make us realize what we need to do to be successful?' So, we had the crisis, and we'll see how we react to it."
Lane Kiffin visited Tuscaloosa to exchange ideas with Alabama's offensive coaching staff this week. The idea that Alabama would welcome input from the polarizing former Southern California coach caught many on social media by surprise.
Saban was surprised at the reaction.
"I can't believe that there was any reaction to it," Saban said. "Just about every year we have coaches come in and do what we call sort of professional-development things. We exchange ideas ... just visit with our coaches, give us new ideas, brainstorm with us."
Saban pointed out that Oklahoma's staff has visited Alabama during bowl practice before. Kiffin was fired after a 62-41 loss to Arizona State on Sept. 28.
Receiver Kevin Norwood said the players didn't get a chance to meet with Kiffin at length during his visit on Monday, but that "everyone was shocked when he walked into our meeting room."
"Lane is a really good offensive coach, and I've always had a tremendous amount of respect for him," Saban said. "Just to come in and brainstorm a little bit, exchange professional ideas with our guys, is a real positive thing, to be honest with you.
"I'm really quite surprised."
In a moment of candor, Saban couldn't hide his joy on the birth of his first grandchild. His face lit up when discussing what being a grandfather has been like thus far.
"It's really wonderful, and you know, you've really got to count your blessings because to have a healthy baby and a healthy mother and you have someone that beautiful come into your family, is really something," Saban said.
Saban said the baby can't come home until today.
"I kind of miss the little booger, if you want to know the truth."
Saban is a finalist for the Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year award. ... Saban confirmed that guard Anthony Steen had shoulder surgery. He is not expected to play in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2. ... Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix participated in practice Tuesday. He had arthroscopic knee surgery after the Iron Bowl and is expected to play in the Sugar Bowl. "He's OK and ready to go," Saban said. ... Norwood said that he has accepted an invitation to the Senior Bowl. Other Alabama players are expected to receive invites, but those invitations have not been made public.
D.C. Reeves contributed to this report.
Reach Aaron Suttles at [email protected] or at 205-722-0229.