For the Alabama Football program, winning is a part of the culture. From a historical perspective, Bama and its fans have grown accustomed to winning, and often expect to win as a result.
One of the key factors that has allowed Alabama to operate with this winning mentality is the fact that it also knows how to lose.
Even in the Coach Nick Saban era, during which this winning expectation has reached unprecedented heights, there is not a total absence of failure, losses, and hardship. Though they may be a rare occurrence, the program is built off of these losses. Coach Saban has stated many times that he never wants his team to "waste a failure," and it rarely does so.
Saban has routinely parlayed devastating losses into championships. In 2008, an up-and-coming Alabama Football team fell short of its goals when it lost to top-ranked Florida in the SEC title game. The Tide would return to go 14-0 the following season, winning a national title in dominant fashion. In 2014, a loss to Ohio State in the inaugural College Football Playoff semifinals forced Coach Saban and Alabama to refocus. A year later, the Crimson Tide beat Big 10 champion Michigan State 38-0 in the semifinal round en route to another national title.
Alabama Football: Learning from non-championship seasons
For a program that considers the sport’s ultimate prize to be an annual standard, it’s important to remember that Alabama Football has had seasons under Nick Saban where it was not a national title contender. Seasons like 2010, 2019, and 2022 come to mind. While seasons like these can be wildly disappointing and frustrating for the fan base, they provide an invaluable resource for Coach Saban, who has repeatedly proven that he is the ultimate competitor.
In 2010, Bama finished 10-3 with a win in the Capital One Bowl. In 2019, it went 11-2 with a win in the Citrus Bowl. Last season, it went 11-2 with a win in the Sugar Bowl. While these are good seasons in a vacuum, they were all down years relative to Saban’s tenure at Alabama. In all of these years, Bama lost heartbreaking games to hated rivals and failed to compete for an SEC title or a national championship.
These three Alabama Football teams also had something else in common: they all exhibited a winning culture and mindset, even after their biggest goals were no longer within reach.
In 2010, Alabama went into the Capital One Bowl in a prime letdown spot. The Crimson Tide had just lost a gut-wrencher in the Iron Bowl, and was relegated to what could've been considered a meaningless bowl, having lost three regular season games.
Its opponent, Michigan State, was one of the Big 10’s best teams and felt it had been snubbed by the BCS. While many wondered if Alabama would have any motivation to play in such a game, Coach Saban and his team brought their A-game and beat Michigan State 49-7. It carried this momentum into the offseason, and would return to the college football mountaintop in 2011.
2019 was another disappointing year for the Crimson Tide. When the regular season concluded, Bama had lost two games, including another Iron Bowl loss. It had fallen out of the College Football Playoff picture, missed the SEC Championship Game, and was without injured starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
Once again, the Tide showed up in Orlando with a point to prove. It withstood a shaky first half to outscore Michigan 21-0 in the second for a decisive 35-16 victory. This game built a lot of confidence in the Alabama Football program, and particularly in new starting quarterback Mac Jones. Jones would take the reins in a full-time capacity in 2020, leading Alabama to a 13-0 record and a national championship.
2022 was a similar story. Bama opened the year as a title favorite, but missed the playoffs entirely after narrow regular season losses to Tennessee and LSU.
When it was assigned to play Kansas State in the Sugar Bowl, many expected Bama to have lots of opt-outs. The Crimson Tide had several projected first round draft picks, including quarterback Bryce Young and edge rusher Will Anderson Jr., who were each vying to be the no. 1 overall pick.
In an impressive display of championship culture, Alabama Football had no opt-outs among its significant contributors. It showed up focused and played one of its best games of the season, dominating the Big 12 champs 45-20.
In many ways, Alabama carried the momentum of that win into the 2023 season. Now, it has an opportunity to seal the deal with another championship. The mindset that Coach Saban instills in his team allows it to learn and benefit from failure.
It is one of the qualities that has kept the dynasty alive for well over a decade and a half, and one of the reasons why it won’t be going anywhere any time soon.