The viral moment that’ll fuel Alabama’s offseason

The moment was instant viral gold.

Sitting on the SoFi Stadium mezzanine on the ESPN set, Nick Saban was watching David Pollack’s assessment of the CFP championship first half. The score — Georgia 38, TCU 7 — was on the screen as the former Bulldog defensive lineman first buried the Horned Frog fairy tale before, frankly, saying it to Saban’s face.

The discussion of Georgia becoming the new Alabama had been brewing in the leadup to this national championship game. And when the Bulldogs’ 65-7 embarrassment of TCU was half over, Pollack came right out and said it.

“This isn’t really the Cinderella ending and Georgia, we’ve obviously seen in the last couple of seasons, now really, they’ve taken hold of college football,” Pollack said.

The look on Saban’s face in that moment has been and will continue to be analyzed as this moment becomes a touchstone for this era of college football. A veteran of the TV game, Saban was initially nodding along with Pollack’s points before glancing down and off-camera as he realized what was being said. He glanced back over to his left as Pollack explained the youth of this Georgia team has set them up for another go in 2023.

And you could practically hear the Alabama back office staff racing to their computers to chop up that clip.

For the next nine months, expect that to play on a loop in the Crimson Tide football complex.

They’ll pair with headlines like the Wall Street Journal’s “Move Over Alabama, Georgia Is the New Giant of College Football” or Fox Sports’ “Is Georgia the new Alabama? “We’re starting our own thing over here.”

Fittingly, the former Alabama virtuoso of reverse psychology was a part of Georgia’s second straight national title. ESPN cameras caught former Tide strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran on the Bulldog sideline a few times. Before taking a job with Georgia in 2020, Cochran was famous for smashing a CFP runner-up trophy with a sledgehammer, coincidentally, as motivation before Alabama’s 2018 title-game win over Georgia.

It worked or at least didn’t hurt as the Crimson Tide held off its former defensive coordinator Kirby Smart on the night remembered for the 2nd-and-26 overtime walk-off. Smart was still building the empire that is now unmistakably thriving.

For Saban, a balcony view of Georgia’s 58-point massacre and Pollack’s declaration is certainly enough to splash gas on his already-eternal flame. It’s a matter of how his 85-man roster responds because he’s been here before. Saban’s dynasty has been pronounced dead a few times in the past — first via fast-paced offenses, then by Clemson.

His response was to adapt to the changing style of play and Dabo Swinney’s program is four years removed from its last national title.

Since claiming the 2009 crown — his first of six at Alabama — Saban hasn’t gone more than two years without lifting either a crystal football or the CFP equivalent.

And while Clemson played in four of five title games from 2015-19, this Georgia claims to the New Alabama status carries a different weight. It not only survived losing 15 players to the 2022 draft, it went undefeated to claim the sport’s first repeat championship since 2011-12 Alabama.

They, like Alabama, will need to replace a veteran quarterback but return the core of an offense that panted TCU on national television.

In terms of recruiting, Alabama’s had the No. 1 class in two of the last four years with Georgia top-ranked in 2020. The Bulldogs have been no lower than No. 4 (in 2021) and is No. 2 behind the No. 1 Crimson Tide this cycle.

So, with the talent levels at least theoretically in the same ballpark, moments like Monday night can make a difference. Smart, like Saban in the past, spoke about the challenge of keeping the mental edge sharp after success. It took just minutes into Tuesday morning’s day-after news conference for a three-peat question to come in Smart’s direction.

His Bulldogs are already overwhelming favorites to notch that third straight summit while Alabama’s picked as low as No. 7 in early 2023 rankings.

There is no question about how Pollack’s proclamation or the subsequent headlines will motivate Saban. It’s a matter of trickling down into the locker room.

Last year’s CFP runner-up trophy wasn’t sledgehammered in the locker room but on display in the team’s dining facility. Offensive lineman Emil Ekiyor in August said the “participation trophy” was fuel in what was widely considered Alabama’s 2022 revenge tour. Preseason no. 1 rankings for Alabama, however, became a burden, Saban would later say.

Georgia, meanwhile, felt disrespected by the preseason no. 3 ranking and we know what happened next. The Crimson Tide lost twice and narrowly escaped a few other near upsets before finally putting it together when it was too late. The 45-20 Sugar Bowl win over Kansas State came outside the playoff borders.

How all of these factors into the mental makeup of the 2023 Crimson Tide will be a fascinating study. Gone are emotional leaders like Will Anderson so a new generation will have to fill that void. As coaching staff shakeups begin, one hire is notable. HaHa Clinton-Dix announced his retirement from the NFL while accepting a job on the Alabama player development staff. Clinton-Dix was in Tuscaloosa from 2011-13, part of the consecutive national titles but also the failed attempt at a three-peat his final season.

With the mental edge missing the last two seasons, recirculating a few prominent voices from the early days wouldn’t be the worst idea. Guys like Clinton-Dix know all about finding the mental edge when challenged. In the past, Cochran could twist far-more benign comments into locker room signs conveying utter disrespect.

Pollack straight up said it to Saban’s face.

“He will quote this moment all next season,” former Alabama linebacker Joshua McMillon said while sharing the video of the exchange on Twitter. “Get ready boys!!!!”

Michael Casagrande is a reporter for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @ByCasagrande or on Facebook.

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