Are Alabama players actually embracing an underdog role?

Crimson Tide photos / Alabama junior right tackle JC Latham admitted Wednesday that it was difficult trying to enjoy last season, which ended with an 11-2 record.
Crimson Tide photos / Alabama junior right tackle JC Latham admitted Wednesday that it was difficult trying to enjoy last season, which ended with an 11-2 record.

NASHVILLE — If the heights of the Nick Saban era are impressive, what about the depths?

While proud Southeastern Conference programs such as Auburn, Florida, LSU and Tennessee have bottomed out in recent years with losing seasons, the lowest it gets from the Crimson Tide is 11-2. Last year was one of those "debacles," with last-play losses at Tennessee and at LSU preventing Alabama from reaching the College Football Playoff for the eighth time in the nine seasons of its existence.

Alabama capped last season with a 45-20 crushing of Kansas State in the Sugar Bowl, but savoring the good times often was difficult with a bar raised so high.

"I had mixed feelings about it at the time," Crimson Tide junior right tackle JC Latham said Wednesday as SEC Media Days continued. "Sometimes I told myself to appreciate the little things, because it was my first season starting and I did pretty good, but at the same time I had to understand the reality of it and our standard.

"That's the main thing I took away from last season. We had the opportunity to win and we didn't, and we're going to go out there again and have to show who we are. I know for a fact that we should have won last year."

The only previous occasion in which Alabama missed out on the four-team playoff transpired in 2019, when a 48-45 loss at Auburn eliminated the Crimson Tide. They would respond by shellacking Michigan 35-16 in the Citrus Bowl to complete that season's 11-2 mark.

Alabama finished No. 8 in the last Associated Press poll of the 2019 season, and last year's No. 5 final placement was hardly any consolation.

"I wouldn't say I enjoyed the experience part, but I enjoyed the process and learning new things," junior outside linebacker Dallas Turner said. "I did enjoy that in some type of way. We just came up short, and there are some things we're going to have to work on to improve as a team.

"We have to be consistent a lot more."

Alabama began last season ranked No. 1 and had a veteran leadership core headed by quarterback Bryce Young and outside linebacker Will Anderson, who became the first and third overall picks in April's NFL draft. A starting quarterback has yet to be named this season among the trio of Jalen Milroe, Ty Simpson and Notre Dame transfer Tyler Buchner, and whoever emerges likely will have to deal with the pressure of continuing the amazing assembly line of Jalen Hurts, Tua Tagovailoa, Mac Jones and Young.

Saban had to replace both coordinators in the offseason, but he doesn't view all of these changes as a negative.

"I think experience matters, I really do," Saban said, "but I also think that when you have young players who are hungry and have great energy and enthusiasm, that's helpful to the team chemistry as well."

Alabama has been picked to win the SEC seven consecutive years, but that is expected to change Friday, when Georgia likely will be revealed as the media days selection. The Crimson Tide could be tabbed to win the Western Division over LSU, but being second on any front has never been a mantra of the Saban era.

Of which his players are quite aware.

"That's disrespectful, and I don't appreciate that at all," Latham said of the lower expectations. "I know with this group that we're going to win it all — the national championship, undefeated, the Joe Moore (Award), and I want the Outland (Trophy). We've got leaders and a player-led team, and we've got a spirit to the team.

"We know we are capable of doing it, and we know we are capable of being great, but a lot of people are saying we aren't who we once were."

Latham understands that not having Young and Anderson have led to tempered opinions from the outside, but he believes this year's team will be more physical with "receivers who want to block and running backs who want to run through people."

There wouldn't be much shock value if Saban delivered his seventh national championship to Tuscaloosa this season, but it's Georgia right now wearing both the national and league crowns.

Which has Alabama actually embracing a role it hasn't known for roughly 15 years.

"I love being the underdog," Latham said. "That fuels you when people don't think you can do something. I love the underdog stories. When LeBron (James) was going against the (Golden State) Warriors, who had that 3-1 lead — I was rooting for him all the way. Situations like that give me goosebumps, because I get to prove who I am.

"If you're supposed to win and you win, that's great. Don't get me wrong, but when you're not supposed to win and you overcome that, it's an even better feeling in my opinion."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

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