DALLAS (AP) — Every year, Alabama has at least a handful of players selected in the NFL draft.
That kind of talent makes Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide perennial national championship contenders. But sometimes in the postseason, players’ minds can wander to their lucrative futures and away from actually winning that title before they go pro.
Some of the current Alabama players and coaches say that was the case last season when the Tide lost to Ohio State in the College Football Playoff semifinals — but they are certain it won’t happen again as they prepare for Thursday’s Cotton bowl against No. 3 Michigan State.
“Guys know the draft is going to come and if you don’t play good you ain’t going to get drafted high at all,” Alabama senior linebacker Reggie Ragland said Monday. “It ain’t worth your time thinking about it. Right now I’m focused on playing the best I can. It’s all about my team.”
Alabama is looking for its fourth national championship in nine seasons under Saban. The Crimson Tide players are used to playing in big games and always project an all-business attitude. Last season, though, they let an early 21-6 lead slip away and lost to the Buckeyes in the Sugar Bowl.
Before this season, Saban mentioned that he might not have had his players’ complete attention going into that playoff and how in a huge game, anything that takes away from preparation can lead to a loss.
This week in North Texas, Tide players have insisted they are a more focused and determined group than the team that rolled into New Orleans as a big favorite against last year’s Big Ten champions.
“It’s been real different,” Alabama defensive back Eddie Jackson said. “We was in New Orleans, guys was going out all the time. Now guys rarely go out, everybody just like with each other, like everybody was in the game room last night, just chilling and hanging out, so it’s really been different. Guys more focused, really buying in, watching film. Things that we didn’t really do last year preparing for Ohio State while we was on the road, so it’s been a real difference.”
Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said players this year are self-policing better, but he acknowledges that in the moment, he did not think anything was wrong with last season’s group.
“There’s a positive attitude to this group that I didn’t feel like we had with the last group,” said Smart, who has already accepted the Georgia head coach job. “Sometimes you don’t realize that when you’re amidst it, so I can’t sit here and tell you that at this conference last year I felt that way. But looking at the way this group’s handled things, this group practices every day, their passion for the game; I’m telling you now, (defensive linemen) A’Shawn (Robinson), Jarran Reed, Jonathan Allen, Dalvin (Tomlinson), those guys like practicing.”
The Tide had seven players drafted last season, two from a defense that was gouged in the last two games of the season by Auburn and Ohio State.
Smart said the bigger problem might have been guys simply not playing well. Plenty of those players are back, with the NFL on the horizon. They also have memories of last year’s playoff failures burned into the brains.
“I can just be laying in bed and it’ll just pop up in my head,” Ragland said. “I can still see guys in there crying.”