TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - They lost a hard-fought battle, but the team still has a lot to be proud of. The University of Alabama Football Team returns to Tuscaloosa ranked number two in the nation.
The Clemson Tigers beat the Tide 35-31. Deshaun Watson's 2-yard touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow with 1 second remaining gave Clemson the wild win over Alabama in the College Football Playoff national championship game.
Alabama beat Clemson 45-40 last season in the title game. This sequel was as thrilling as the original.
Now, it's Alabama that wants to pull a Clemson
Now, the offseason mission is to pull off a Clemson. Tide players hope to carry the pain of losing a down-to-the-last-breath national championship game and use it to fuel a major comeback.
Like the Tigers last year, the Crimson Tide (14-1) entered the game undefeated and will be among the preseason favorites for another title game trip.
"They had it on their minds all year. All offseason," Alabama freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts said. "And now we're in their shoes."
It only seems like an unusual situation for a program that has still won half of the last eight national championships and three straight Southeastern Conference titles. They rebounded from a semifinal loss to Ohio State two years ago to win 26 consecutive games.
The expectations won't change, even with the latest outflow of star players to the NFL.
That group includes defensive end Jonathan Allen and linebackers Anderson, Reuben Foster and Tim Williams. Junior left tackle Cam Robinson, the Outland Trophy winner, is also projected as a first-round draft pick.
A string of top-rated recruiting classes leaves the cupboard bountifully stocked with talented but sometimes unproven players.
So much so that Clemson coach Dabo Swinney made a bold prediction — about Alabama.
"I guarantee they'll be right back next year," Swinney said after the game.
If they are, the feeling in that locker room could be a driving force.
"Those guys are going to take this feeling and every time they want to quit a workout, they'll remember it," Howard said.
Hurts was already looking forward, saying he planned to start watching film perhaps as early as the wee hours after the game ended.
"It always hurts to end it this way, but what's done is done," he said. "We can control what's going to happen, and that's what we're going to focus on."
Hurts will be a centerpiece of whatever is going to happen. He was the Southeastern Conference offensive player of the year and the most prolific rusher of any Alabama quarterback, and now gets an offseason to improve his passing. Hurts passed for just 57 yards in the semifinal win over Washington and was 13 of 31 for 131 yards against Clemson (14-1).
Most of that yardage production came on a 68-yard bomb to Howard.
The rest of the backfield is also set to return intact, including 1,000-yard rusher Damien Harris and emergent star Scarbrough. The nation's top recruit, running back Najee Harris, joins the mix.
With one backup quarterback having transferred and the other two scholarship passers planning to leave for other schools, Hurts' backup — or competition — could be highly rated recruit Tua Tagovailoa. Both Harris and Tagovailoa are expected to go through spring practice as mid-year enrollees.
Freshman right tackle Jonah Williams started every game and could replace Robinson. They'll be led by new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.
Defensively, the returnees are led by All-America safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, defensive tackle Da'Ron Payne and cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who is also draft eligible.
The seniors, meanwhile, ended their college careers on a down note. But Saban called this group "winners in every way."
"We just can't let one game define us," Williams said. "We had an awesome season. Undefeated in the SEC. Back-to-back-to-back SEC championships. National championship last year.
"Our resume for this ... We're all right."