TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama is embracing a different role going into these playoffs.
The fourth-ranked Crimson Tide players can’t technically call themselves underdogs since they’re actually slight favorites over No. 1 Clemson in the Sugar Bowl, but they know some view them as interlopers who don’t belong in the playoffs this time. They had to sweat it out for more than a week before getting a postseason reprieve.
All-America safety Minkah Fitzpatrick believes that period of uncertainty — and contentions by Ohio State fans and others that Alabama wasn’t the most worthy No. 4 seed — can fuel the Tide.
“People were counting us out that didn’t want us in there,” Fitzpatrick said. “Some people just don’t like us. It’s true. But I think it definitely helped as motivation and fuel, especially if we do what we’re supposed to do and get to where we want to be, I think it will help us a lot.”
When you’ve won four national titles in the past nine years, you latch onto whatever motivational source you can find. Quarterback Jalen Hurts, asked if Alabama feels like an underdog, pointed out: “They’re the national champions, we’re not. So…”
The Tide (11-1) hasn’t ranked lower than No. 2 in three previous playoff appearances, twice holding down the top spot.
This Alabama team was a much-debated playoff pick after failing to make the Southeastern Conference championship game. The Tide closed the regular season with a 26-14 loss at No. 7 Auburn in the Iron Bowl.
Cornerback Levi Wallace said the team, which wasn’t challenged all that much the rest of the season, has to learn from that feeling after a loss.
“It’s just something internally,” Wallace said. “We know we didn’t finish the season the way we wanted to and we want to make sure that never happens again. We want to show the younger guys, now you know what it feels like. It’s a different city after you lose.”
And it left Alabama players in the rare position of trying to prove they belong in the playoffs. Linebacker Anfernee Jennings said they’re “absolutely” thinking of themselves as underdogs.
“I think a lot of people felt like we didn’t deserve to be in the playoffs,” Jennings said. “But we felt like we should the whole time and we’re ready to go in and dominate.”
Wallace thinks the Tide has another role, that of the villain in college football. He said it doesn’t bother him “even a little bit” that some people don’t like ‘Bama.
“We’re seen as the villain,” Wallace said. “I’m sure a lot of people don’t like Alabama because we’re always so good each and every year. That’s something Coach (Nick) Saban has instilled in us. Trying to be the best we can be. Just being the University of Alabama, whatever you guys (the media) say we are, that’s what we are but we’re definitely the bad guys in college football.”
This team doesn’t enter the playoffs with an impeccable resume partly because an opening win over No. 3 Florida State lost its luster when the Seminoles struggled the rest of the way. The Tide’s only other wins over ranked teams came against No. 16 LSU (24-10) and No. 24 Mississippi State (31-24).
Now, Alabama gets a rematch against the team that toppled the Tide in the national championship game, a defeat that fueled them through the offseason.
“Our whole motto was finishing, so I think that really helped us in the offseason,” Alabama tailback Damien Harris said. “But now, we’re just focused on us and we’re focused on playing our best football. I know we’re playing a great team and they’re going pose a lot of challenges to us, but we feel like if we play our best football, it gives us a good chance to win.”