Top-ranked Tide run­nin’ down a dream

Los Angeles Times - - COLLEGE FOOTBALL - david.whar­ton@la­times.com Twit­ter: @LA­timesWhar­ton

There seems to be a chip on Alabama’s shoul­der th­ese days — and maybe that should worry the rest of col­lege foot­ball.

It’s not only that the most dom­i­nant pro­gram in the na­tion over the last decade has re­claimed the No. 1 spot in the Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off rank­ings. The Crim­son Tide also have some mo­ti­va­tion stem­ming from last sea­son’s loss to Clem­son in the na­tional cham­pi­onship game. As se­nior de­fen­sive back An­thony Averett put it: “We’re all about fin­ish­ing this year.”

Hunger for re­venge has pushed Averett and his team­mates through a string of in­juries on de­fense and last week’s close call at No. 16 Mis­sis­sippi State. It has helped them re­main un­de­feated in a sea­son roiled by all sorts of mad­ness.

An­other week­end of up­sets forced the CFP se­lec­tion com­mit­tee to reshuf­fle the deck yet again Tues­day, knock­ing Ge­or­gia and Notre Dame out of the top four, down to No. 7 and No. 8.

The lat­est rank­ing has Alabama fol­lowed by No. 2 Clem­son, No. 3 Mi­ami and No. 4 Ok­la­homa.

“Many teams re­main very close through­out the rank­ings,” Kirby Ho­cutt, chair­man of the se­lec­tion com­mit­tee, said in a state­ment. “Head-to-head vic­to­ries among com­pa­ra­ble teams, re­sults against com­mon op­po­nents and strength of sched­ule re­main im­por­tant points of dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion for many teams.”

Alabama started the sea­son atop the Associated Press me­dia poll and has re­mained there for about three months. But when the CFP ex­perts con­vened for the first time last month, they rel­e­gated the Crim­son Tide to No. 2 on the list that de­ter­mines which four teams make the play­off.

Given the in­sta­bil­ity in col­lege foot­ball this fall, it took only a cou­ple of weeks for things to change.

Coach Ur­ban Meyer, who has watched his Ohio State team yo-yo for the last two months, isn’t sur­prised that so much has been in flux.

“Every year I’ve been in­volved in col­lege foot­ball, there’s like what? What hap­pened?” he told re­porters. “And it’s the na­ture of the beast.”

Ok­la­homa knows both sides of the equa­tion, los­ing to Iowa State in early Oc­to­ber and then re­bound­ing.

“I feel like we’re a lit­tle more equipped to han­dle it be­cause it’s al­most like we’ve been through the cy­cle,” Coach Lincoln Ri­ley said.

Re­siliency has be­come the mantra for a num­ber of one­and two-loss teams in the play­off hunt.

Af­ter Notre Dame’s blowout de­feat at Mi­ami, Coach Brian Kelly talked to his play­ers about No. 11 USC, which has won three in a row since fall­ing to the Irish.

“It’s re­ally how you re­spond in col­lege ath­let­ics,” Kelly said.

Though Alabama hasn’t needed to re­cover from de­feat, this fall has pre­sented other chal­lenges for a team picked to re­turn to the cham­pi­onship game for a third con­sec­u­tive sea­son. Es­pe­cially trou­ble­some are in­juries to four lineback­ers that have thinned the Crim­son Tide’s front seven.

It is a tes­ta­ment to the pro­gram’s depth that the de­fense ranks sec­ond in the na­tion, sur­ren­der­ing 252 yards a game. And sopho­more quar­ter­back Jalen Hurts has guided an ef­fi­cient, run-heavy at­tack that av­er­ages 474 yards.

“We’ve had ad­ver­sity through­out the sea­son,” of­fen­sive line­man Jonah Wil­liams said. “I think be­ing able to re­spond to that is a big part of the char­ac­ter we have here as an of­fense.”

The Crim­son Tide should get a break against Mercer on Satur­day but must win the reg­u­lar-sea­son fi­nale against No. 6 Auburn to qual­ify for the South­east­ern Con­fer­ence cham­pi­onship game.

Coach Nick Sa­ban has chal­lenged his play­ers, ask­ing them: “Can you thrive on ‘hard’?”

Last week­end, play­ing on the road in the cow­bell din of Starkville, Miss., the de­fense made a late stop, giv­ing Hurts the chance to mount a 68-yard drive in the fi­nal minute. His 26-yard pass to DeVonta Smith with 25 sec­onds re­main­ing se­cured a come-from-be­hind, 31-24 vic­tory over Mis­sis­sippi State.

Af­ter­ward, Hurts and Averett both men­tioned the ti­tle game last sea­son, when they held a fourth-quar­ter lead un­til Clem­son scored the win­ning touch­down with one sec­ond left.

Their coach can un­der­stand if that mem­ory per­sists.

“A lot on the line. You work all year long to try to put your­self in that po­si­tion and you come up a lit­tle short,” Sa­ban said. “I think that’s some­thing that you never for­get.”

At least not un­til the Crim­son Tide get an­other shot at the ti­tle.

Rogelio V. Solis Associated Press

NICK SA­BAN and Alabama are back on top of the play­off pic­ture, mo­ti­vated by last year’s cham­pi­onship game loss, and that spells trou­ble for ev­ery­one else.

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