HOOVER, Ala. -- Did looking ahead result in Alabama getting left behind in last season's College Football Playoff semifinal against Ohio State?
Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban brought up that possibility Wednesday morning during his 14th appearance at Southeastern Conference Media Days. Saban is entering his ninth season in Tuscaloosa after spending five years at LSU, with a two-year stint leading the NFL's Miami Dolphins in between.
"In our experience last year, our team chemistry from the SEC championship game to the playoff game was affected by something," Saban said.
Alabama drubbed Missouri 42-13 in last season's SEC title matchup in early December, and Saban believes several of his underclassmen may have been distracted by where they might be picked in the NFL draft. The deadline for underclassmen to submit assessment requests to the NFL is Dec. 15, with players getting their assessments back from the league's draft advisory board around Christmas.
Last season's semifinals were held on New Year's Day, with Alabama jumping out to a 21-6 lead on the Buckeyes in New Orleans before losing 42-35. The Crimson Tide closed the 2013 season, which was the final year of the BCS, with a 45-31 upset loss to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.
"We're talking about a young person who has to deal with a lot now," Saban said. "We had six guys in this situation this past year and 11 the year before, so we're trying to get ready for a game, and all of a sudden a guy finds out he's a (potential) first-round pick, or a guy who thought he was a first-round pick finds out he's not a first-round draft pick.
"I think it would be better not to submit that information to a player until he was finished competing in college. We've moved the draft back, but we have not moved the date that a player has to declare back."
Asked if he was using that as an excuse for the loss to the Buckeyes, Saban said he wasn't and that he takes full responsibility for the outcome.
The Crimson Tide have gone 23-4 the past two years with one SEC title, but the two season-ending setbacks have not sat well in Tuscaloosa. Players have varying degrees of sharing Saban's sentiment.
"I wasn't a part of the specific game plan leading up to that game because of my injury, but I felt like we were as focused as we ever could be," senior tailback Kenyan Drake said. "Obviously Coach Saban sees more things than I may have in that situation, but Ohio State was a formidable opponent and did their job to beat us."
Said senior center Ryan Kelly: "There were some guys who were thinking about other things and thinking about the NFL. Since we're on such a big stage and have a target on our back, things like that show sometimes."
The Crimson Tide expect to be in the conversation for the second four-team playoff with Drake and Derrick Henry at tailback and O.J. Howard a potential mismatch for opposing defenses at tight end. Alabama's offensive line and its defensive line especially should rank among the best in the nation, but there are questions at quarterback and with a secondary that has dropped in productivity since attaining a third national title in four years in 2012.
Saban said he is not going to force the quarterback race between Jacob Coker, David Cornwell or whoever else might challenge for first-team reps, and there is no timetable as far as naming a starter. Replacing All-American receiver Amari Cooper is another sizable objective, but this is a program that averaged a school-record 484.5 yards per game last season under coordinator Lane Kiffin and has landed the No. 1 signing class nationally in five of the past six winters.
"I don't see why this team can't be just as good or better," Kelly said. "We've got the same good talent. We just need to put it together."
Alabama is attempting to become the SEC's first back-to-back champion since Tennessee in 1997 and '98.
Kelly endured one of the tougher offseasons among Alabama players, with the 6-foot-5, 297-pounder hailing from West Chester, Ohio. He went home in May for the first time since the Sugar Bowl and returned a second time last month.
"It hasn't been fun," he said. "I have a lot of buddies who are Ohio State fans, and they've given me some grief."
Saban on Coker: "We're encouraged by all the things that he's done to this point." Senior linebacker Reggie Ragland on SEC parity: "Everyone can beat everyone. Tennessee picked up my brother, Alvin Kamara. That was a good pickup by them." Saban on the Confederate flag: "Anytime we have a symbol that represents something that is mean-spirited or doesn't represent equal rights for all people, I'm not for having that symbol represent anything that we're involved in."
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