How Alabama's last loss to South Carolina spurred a 'learning-lesson year'
A scattering of white Alabama jerseys raced into the visiting locker room in order to evade a sea of scarlet ready to engulf the field inside Williams-Brice Stadium. Goalposts were taken down preemptively as not to be ripped from the ground by the euphoric South Carolina faithful.
The day was Oct. 10, 2010, and the Gamecocks had just upset the top-ranked Crimson Tide, 35-21, handing Alabama its first loss in 20 games and its first regular-season defeat in three years.
“This is a lesson for everybody in terms of what you have to do to prepare and what it takes to play with consistency in this league,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban told reporters after the game. “… I think everybody needs to remember what this feels like and make a commitment to what they need to do to better prepare themselves to play the best football we can play as a team.”
Nine years is a long time, and Saban has more recent learning moments to pass down to his current crop of players. After all, several of the Crimson Tide’s current stars were still watching cartoons when the 2010 season came crashing apart.
“What year are we in now? 2019?” Saban quipped Monday. “So most of our guys were in grade school when that happened.”
Still, the disappointment felt leaving the field on that miserable day in Columbia, S.C. remains stuck in the head coach’s craw to this day. It’s a feeling that still eats at him and perhaps one worth sharing with the current team as it prepares to travel to face the Gamecocks this weekend for the first time in nearly a decade.
“What I remember from it is we got the lining kicked out of our britches,” Saban said. “I don’t know if you know what that means, but that means you get your butt kicked so bad you got no seam in the back of your pants. So, yeah, I remember that… I know this is a tough place to play and we have a lot of respect for the team we’re playing. I think that the players on our team need to have the proper respect in terms of what they need to do to prepare to play a good team like this.”
‘That stadium was rocking like nowhere I’ve ever heard’
Darude’s “Sandstorm” played relentlessly — an incessant reminder of the intensity Alabama would be subjected to over the next three hours.
The Crimson Tide was already racked from an unfavorable scheduling quirk which saw it face three straight ranked opponents all coming out of off weeks. Alabama had already survived a 24-20 dogfight at No. 10 Arkansas and was coming off a 31-6 dismantling of No. 7 Florida inside Bryant-Denny Stadium. A game against No. 19 South Carolina inside buzzing Williams-Brice Stadium was scheduled to be the final act in the harrowing feat.
“Everyone was pretty aware that we got a pretty rough gauntlet schedule,” former Alabama defensive back Will Lowery said. “For some reason, it seems like there’s an attempt to level the playing field with Alabama sometimes, at least since we’ve gotten so dominant.
“It was kind of like, whatever. At the end of the day, it’s just a schedule, and it doesn’t matter. Is it tougher that some teams had bye weeks before us? Yeah. But at the end of the day, you still need to line up and play football.”
Alabama did just that, marching 54 yards down the field for a field goal on the opening drive of the game. From there, chaos ensued.
South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia, who was benched by the Gamecocks the previous week after fumbling twice in a loss to Auburn, set the tone early. The longhaired, free-flowing gunslinger completed his first nine passes, throwing touchdowns on each of South Carolina’s first three offensive possessions.
Cue “Sandstorm” again.
“That stadium was rocking like nowhere I’ve ever heard,” Lowery said. “You had (Sandstorm) blaring every five seconds, and the fans were waving those towels. It was one of the more intense environments we’ve ever played in.”
Alabama was well aware of South Carolina’s talent heading into the game. The Gamecocks featured a five-star running back in Marcus Lattimore as well as a trio of future Pro Bowlers in receiver Alshon Jeffrey, cornerback Stephon Gilmore and defensive end Melvin Ingram. Still, few figured South Carolina would have the firepower to end the defending national champions’ 19-game winning streak.
Alabama cut the deficit with a touchdown late in the second quarter. However, a missed extra point made the score 21-9 and foreshadowed more misfortune in the second half.
“I think halftime was like, ‘Shit boys, what’s going on?’” said former tight end Preston Dial.
Alabama was given hope on the opening drive of the third quarter as Garcia bobbled a shotgun snap before ultimately tossing it out of the end zone for a safety. After a field goal from Alabama cut the deficit even further, South Carolina pulled away again on a touchdown run from Lattimore late in the third quarter. Still, Alabama answered back again as quarterback Greg McElroy found receiver Darrius Hanks on a 51-yard touchdown to open the final period.
The tide looked as if it was about to turn on the next possession as Lowery intercepted a pass from Garcia at the South Carolina 37-yard line. However, McElroy was sacked on third-and-4 from the Gamecocks' 18-yard line followed by a botched fake field goal attempt as the Crimson Tide came away with nothing.
“It was just one opportunity here, one opportunity there,” Dial said. “We’d give up a sack, or we’d have a penalty. They’d bring pressure on third-and-2 and stop us. It was just little things like that that kept adding up. They just made timely play after timely play.”
‘It was kind of the learning-lesson year’
The 2010 team is remembered for its underachievement. Sandwiched between two of the best teams in Alabama’s history, it’s one of the biggest head-scratchers of the Saban era.
That year’s Crimson Tide featured 24 future NFL draft picks, including nine future first-rounders. It had the defending Heisman winner in Mark Ingram at running back and a future Doak Walker Award winner in Trent Richardson behind him. It had a future All-Pro receiver in Julio Jones and two future All-Pro linebackers in Dont’a Hightower and C.J. Mosley on defense.
Still, it went on to lose two more games, falling 24-21 at LSU before blowing a three-touchdown lead at the half during a 28-27 loss to eventual national champion Auburn inside Bryant-Denny Stadium.
“It was very tough when we lost because we knew we shouldn’t have,” Lowery said. “It wasn’t that we were cocky; we just knew we were the best team. It was like we knew if we played our best that there was no way anyone should be able to play with us. That team that year was probably the most talented or as talented as any team Saban has ever had, and we still lost three games. From a talent perspective, we had no business losing any games.
“When you’re not supposed to lose and you do, you’re immediately looking at why. There were some glaring stats. But, in retrospect, you’re thinking, ‘Yeah maybe some of those guys were thinking about the draft.' It was definitely tough. It was a character check. And when you hadn’t lost and to lose in the way we did, it was like ‘Man, we really blew it.’”
Lowery joined Alabama as a walk-on in 2008, the first year of Alabama’s recent resurgence. That year Alabama worked its way to a No. 1 ranking, finishing the regular season undefeated before losing to No. 4 Florida in the SEC Championship Game. Despite suffering an embarrassing Sugar Bowl defeat to Utah a month later, the success of that season helped plant the seeds of the Crimson Tide’s undefeated national title run the following year.
Still in the infancy of its current dynasty, Alabama was growing accustomed to its newfound success but had yet to master the art of sustaining it.
“Anybody can win once, but trying to stay on top of the mountain is a totally different ballgame,” Lowery said. “It’s so hard to find that motivation day-in and day-out when you are the champion. The 2010 season was kind of that year of realization of just how difficult that is. I think it certainly has served as a warning for the Alabama teams since then. It was kind of the learning-lesson year.”
Lowery went on to win a national championship with Alabama the following season, ending his college career with two national titles. However, the what-ifs still come up occasionally among friends while discussing the 2010 season. Nine years later, Lowery has come to terms with the defeat. In fact, he argues it might have even been a necessity for the program’s long-term success.
“It made us realize what it takes and what not to do and how not to handle success,” he said. “It was almost like growing up for the program and learning how to sustain excellence.”
‘The biggest thing is everybody has got to check their ego in at the door’
Few members of Alabama’s current team can recall what they were doing nine years ago, much less the Crimson Tide’s infamous 2010 loss to South Carolina. Still, the defeat serves as a warning as the team prepares for this weekend’s trip to Columbia.
In a lot of ways, this year’s team mirrors its predecessors of nine years ago. Alabama is again chock full of talent on both sides of the ball and started the season with six players in ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper’s Big Board. Several preseason mock drafts had as many as seven Crimson Tide players selected in the first round of next year’s NFL Draft.
Two years ago, Saban lashed out at such distractions, calling them "rat poison." The analogy would have come in handy back in 2010 when complacency and self-satisfaction seemed to permeate through the Crimson Tide’s locker room.
“I think the biggest thing is everybody has got to check their ego in at the door. It has to be 100 percent about the team,” Dial said. “You can have all the talent, but if somebody isn’t where they are supposed to be, you can look really silly. Talent is all fine and good, but it’s kind of like a straight-six engine. You get one piston firing off-kilter and it messes the whole thing up. I hope and pray that the guys this year see that… I hope they aren’t reading Mel Kiper’s draft board because that doesn’t have shit to do with winning.”
Alabama experienced similar distractions last season as it strayed from its typical standard late in the year before unraveling during a 44-16 loss to Clemson in the national championship game.
“We got humbled, I think, last year, so we know what the expectations for our team are, and we take that every week and we think about that every week,” safety Xavier McKinney said. “So, we’re just trying to get better each and every day. We know we’re not invincible, and we know we’ve got a lot of work to do, so we’re going to keep doing that and continue to get better.”
This offseason, Saban stated his No. 1 objective was to “reestablish the Alabama factor,” the team’s ethos comprised of commitment, discipline, effort, toughness and pride. When asked Wednesday if his team had accomplished that goal, the head coach said it was too early to tell. He believes that question will be answered by how his team sustains throughout the season.
Perhaps it's fitting that this week’s test comes at the site of one of Alabama’s previous undoings. After all, you couldn’t ask for a better setting for a team looking to bury its past demons while on its road to redemption.
“I’m a firm believer that you can learn your lesson from the past but you don’t need to dwell on it,” offensive lineman Landon Dickerson said. “So there was a lesson learned there, and hopefully we prepare enough so that it doesn’t happen again.”