Seated alongside coach Nick Saban early Friday morning at a Sugar Bowl news conference, Alabama fifth-year senior quarterback AJ McCarron took the blame for the Crimson Tide's surprising 45-31 loss to Oklahoma.
Minutes later, in a smaller gathering with reporters, McCarron challenged his younger teammates to maintain Alabama's surge that includes a 72-9 record and three national championships since 2008. Or maybe it was more of a blasting.
"They've got to buy into the system all the way," McCarron said. "We've got a lot of guys who don't buy in -- some selfish guys. It's all about them."
Alabama was the overwhelming favorite for a third consecutive national championship after routing Notre Dame 42-14 in last season's BCS title tilt. The Crimson Tide were still the favorites when they won their first 11 games by the average score of 40-9, including an impressive 38-17 win over LSU.
Then came the season finale at Auburn, when Alabama watched a 21-7 lead turn into a 34-28 defeat that was decided on a final play that will never be forgotten.
"I thought our team late in the season, from the LSU game on, maybe didn't have the focus that we needed to have," Saban said. "We didn't pay attention to detail and didn't practice as well, and I think that eventually caught up with us in the Auburn game. I actually thought our players responded and practiced pretty well for this game.
"I just don't think our players realize sometimes that they've won so much that they realize what it takes to win every game and that you can never take anything for granted. Everyone who plays us has something to prove."
Alabama racked up 516 yards against the Sooners, but McCarron threw two interceptions and suffered a fumble in the final minute that Oklahoma returned for the clinching score. Sophomore tailback T.J. Yeldon suffered a second-quarter fumble in the red zone, which helped Oklahoma turn a 17-17 deadlock into a 31-17 halftime lead.
The Crimson Tide, who allowed a program-record 628 yards in a September escape of Texas A&M, wound up yielding 79 points in their last two games. That's the highest two-game total for Alabama since losing to Colorado 47-33 in the 1969 Liberty Bowl and to Southern Cal 42-21 in the 1970 opener.
"We probably gained enough yards," Saban said, "but we had four turnovers that led to 28 points."
Alabama's obvious bright spot was freshman tailback Derrick Henry, who rushed eight times for 100 yards and had a 61-yard touchdown reception that got the Tide within 38-31 with 6:22 remaining. The 6-foot-3, 238-pound Henry was Parade Magazine's national player of the year last winter but was the third-team tailback this season and did not have any carries in the three biggest tests against Texas A&M, LSU and Auburn.
Henry passed sophomore Kenyan Drake last month to become Yeldon's primary backup and called his performance at the Superdome "a dream come true."
"Derrick had a really good bowl practice," Saban said. "We decided he was our second-best back going into this game and that we would give him an opportunity based on his performance in practice and the confidence he had gained. He certainly had an outstanding game tonight."
The emergence of Henry along with the receiving tandem of Amari Cooper and DeAndrew White, who combined for 260 yards against the Sooners, give Alabama a good place to start moving forward, but there will be numerous questions for this program in upcoming months. The Crimson Tide allowed seven sacks against Oklahoma and are expected to lose junior left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio in addition to senior right guard Anthony Steen, whose absence Thursday night due to shoulder surgery was noticeable.
Alabama failed to develop a shutdown cornerback this season to match the likes of Dre Kirkpatrick and Dee Milliner and could lose junior safety HaHa Clinton-Dix to the NFL in addition to Kouandjio. The Crimson Tide were torched for 348 yards and four touchdowns by Oklahoma redshirt freshman Trevor Knight.
Yet the biggest question concerning Alabama will be replacing McCarron. Redshirt junior Blake Sims and redshirt freshman Alec Morris are next in line in terms of duration in what will be an open competition this spring.
"Don't be surprised one bit if [freshman] Luke Del Rio is right in the thick of things for that quarterback spot," ESPN recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill said. "I don't necessarily believe Alec Morris is in it, but I do like [freshman] Cooper Bateman as a competitor for it. It's going to be very interesting, and with Nick Saban-coached teams, they're going to go, at least initially, with the guy who makes the fewest errors.
"They are going to have good personnel around them, so whoever the quarterback is doesn't have to wear an 'S' on his chest."
McCarron departs Alabama having won a school-record 36 games and having become the first starting quarterback to win two national titles for the Crimson Tide. His 387 yards against the Sooners allowed him to set a single-season program record of 3,063 yards, topping the 2,987 predecessor Greg McElroy amassed in 2010.
"I'll leave with a lot of great memories, a lot of good times and a lot of good football," McCarron said.
And if the players he leaves behind come together?
"If everybody buys in, this could be a very dangerous team next season," he said.
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.