Alabama has had two-and-a-half months to recover.
Deshaun Watson found Hunter Renfrow in the end zone with 1 second remaining to give Clemson the national championship. It doesn’t matter if it was a pick play or not. Alabama lost on Jan. 9 in Tampa, Florida, and that’s the end of it.
And if the pain of that loss wasn’t realized fully since then, Clemson set it in stone, adding a commemorative tombstone to its so-called “Graveyard” recently.
Listen closely and you can almost hear the words of Alabama linebacker Rashaan Evans in the locker room after the game: “People hurt. You work so hard to get to this point. You lose the game, and it’s like a death in the family.”
But the time for mourning has ended. The time for wondering “what if?” is over. As Alabama prepares to start spring practice on Tuesday afternoon, we get to see just how the new-look Crimson Tide will bounce back.
The only place for Clemson in the Tide’s locker room now is as a source of motivation.
Motivation ??? pic.twitter.com/6a4uEKBzbp
— Maserati Mack ? (@iam__mw3o) March 16, 2017
The truth is that Alabama has more important things to do than dwell on what happened last season. Take the author of that motivational post, Mack Wilson. The former blue-chip prospect impressed as a true freshman, garnering comparison to Reuben Foster for the way he leveled opponents on special teams. But now he’s expected to do more than decapitate return men. With the Butkus Award-winning Foster off to the NFL, there’s an open spot at middle linebacker, and it’s up to Wilson whether he wants to take it.
All told, seven starters must be replaced from the nation’s top defense last season. The team’s top three pass-rushers are gone, including Lombardi Award winner and SEC Defensive Player of the Year Jonathan Allen, along with one its best interior linemen in Dalvin Tomlinson. Top cornerback Marlon Humphrey and starting safety Eddie Jackson are off to the pros as well.
Da’Shawn Hand is brimming with talent, but he’ll be dealing with a new kind of pressure replacing Allen on the starting defensive line. The same goes for Anthony Averett, who was arguably the best man-to-man corner on the team but now has to do without Humphrey opposite him on defense.
What’s more, we need to see how Shaun Dion Hamilton comes back from knee surgery at middle linebacker.
On the other side of the ball, there are just as many questions that need to be answered, starting with Alabama’s third coordinator in as many months, Brian Daboll.
Daboll may have started his career under Nick Saban at Michigan State, learned under the wing of Bill Belichick at New England and been an offensive coordinator three times in the NFL, but the fact is he’s still a relative unknown. Having not sniffed the college game in two decades, it’s fair to wonder what kind of playcaller and coach he’ll be.
“Brian’s got a lot of experience,” Saban said. “He’s coached 11 years with the Patriots, six years as an NFL offensive coordinator, coached with us at Michigan State. So I think he’s got a lot of the knowledge and experience in the pro game as well as being a very bright guy that can learn some of the things that we’ve done here relative to the spread and do what our players can do here.”
While Daboll can show off his five Super Bowl rings and tell stories of Tom Brady, he has never had a quarterback quite like Jalen Hurts, who at this point in his career seems more comfortable running the ball than passing it.
The development of Hurts — and the potential of backup Tua Tagovailoa — will be one of the most intriguing points of emphasis at any spring camp in college football. Because while Hurts might have put together one of the most impressive true freshman campaigns ever — winning SEC Offensive Player of the Year and nearly winning a national title — there’s no getting over the way he ended his season, averaging 47.7 percent completions, 108.7 yards and less than a touchdown per game passing during the SEC championship game and College Football Playoff semifinal and final games.
It will be tempting to lean heavily on the running game given everything Alabama returns in the backfield, but if the playoff taught us anything last season, it’s that balance is important.
If Alabama thought losing to Clemson hurt, imagine what a loss to Florida State in the season opener would do.
There’s already a tombstone in Death Valley. It won’t take much more for the “dynasty is dead” talk to return.