TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama coach Nick Saban already was proud of his latest team, even before the bowl season began.
Saban said he enjoyed the players’ camaraderie on and off the field. The Crimson Tide showed steady improvement throughout the season and played at a high level when early on that didn’t seem possible.
That improvement gave Saban cause for optimism when Alabama began the College Football Playoff.
His feelings didn’t change after losing the Sugar Bowl 42-35 to Ohio State on Thursday night.
“There’s a lot of winners on this team,” Saban said. “And I don’t think you necessarily have to get a trophy to be a winner. And I do think that there’s a lot of guys on this team that have been winners all year and did a fantastic job for our team.”
— Nick Saban
The season ended in disappointment for a second consecutive year despite a 12-2 record and several achievements.
Alabama is two years removed from its last national championship. The stretch of three in four years made being No. 1 the goal and expectation.
“I was apologetic to them as a coach and a coaching staff that I didn’t do a better job of helping them be able to play their best in [the last] game,” Saban said.
However, Saban looked at the season as a whole, not just the final game.
Winning the SEC West and another conference title, along with being ranked No. 1 in the final College Football Playoff standings were positives, according to Saban.
“They kept Alabama in the forefront of college football everywhere in the country, based on the hard work and the improvement that they made throughout the season,” Saban said. “So I’m very proud of what this team was able to accomplish.”
After losing quarterback AJ McCarron and linebacker C.J. Mosley to the NFL, Alabama had holes to fill and some drop-off was expected. However, senior first-year starter Blake Sims became the most productive passer in Alabama history and Reggie Ragland emerged as the big-hitting linebacker.
Injuries hurt the running game. Kenyan Drake was lost in the fifth game and starter T.J. Yeldon played hurt the last half of the season.
The offense turned into a pass-first operation under first-year offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. It helped that there was a Heisman Trophy finalist in Amari Cooper to throw to, plus reliable options in DeAndrew White and Christion Jones.
“I wanted to leave it all on the field and didn’t want to leave until we got what we got,” Sims said. “And I’m just happy that I got the opportunity to play this year, and I know Coach Saban is going to do a great job with the team next year.”
The defense continued its stingy ways, although the secondary was burned with long passes more than usual. Ohio State hit the Tide with a 47-yard touchdown pass and also had a 40-yard completion — both to Devin Smith.
Success began with the defensive line. Alabama’s recruiting came into play as it stocked up on several run-stuffing linemen and pass-rushing ends that could also tackle in space against spread-option teams.
Alabama finished the season ranked No. 13 in total defense and No. 6 in scoring defense (18.4 ppg).
“This has been totally fun,” safety Landon Collins said. “We’ve been through a lot of adversity and it just made us closer. I mean, you get closeness like that, you can just talk about anything and be familiar with each other. It definitely made us closer, and we had tremendous times.”
The secondary had issues again as the pass defense allowed 226.1 yards a game and ranked 58th in the nation.
Cyrus Jones, however, became the shutdown cornerback Alabama needed. There was inconsistency at the other corner with Eddie Jackson coming back from ACL surgery and freshman Tony Brown being thrust into action.
Still, the ups and downs made the season for the Crimson Tide. Saban was thrilled how everyone responded after the early Ole Miss loss to come back and win eight in a row.
So while there will be no national championship again this year, Alabama remained one of the elite programs in the country to contend again in the future.
“This team had great team chemistry all year, worked so hard, had great senior leadership, you know, very little divisiveness and selfishness on this team,” Saban said. “And this was a really fun team to coach and [I] really wanted to see them do well.”