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Alabama is a CFP underdog. History suggests that should terrify Georgia

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  • Nick Saban
    Nick Saban
    American football coach

The University of Alabama has played 181 football games since 2009, and in 178 of them, it has been favored.

It has entered eight national titles and seven playoff semifinals, each time as an expected victor. It has contested 13 Iron Bowls, seven SEC championships and seven 1-versus-2 showdowns. It has started 10 different quarterbacks and cycled through dozens of assistant coaches and still, almost invariably, the people whose livelihoods depend on handicapping sports haven’t dared doubt the Crimson Tide, because Nick Saban and legions of future NFLers have transformed Bama into something greater than Goliath, into a dynastic menace whose superiority seemed unimpeachable.

And, because whenever oddsmakers do doubt college football’s most feared program, it gets even scarier.

They've labeled Alabama an underdog three times over 13 seasons: the 2009 SEC championship against Florida; a 2015 regular season game against Georgia; and last month’s SEC title game against Georgia. The Tide won those games by 19, 28 and 17 points, respectively, and never lost thereafter.

Which is why some folks were mystified when, on Friday night, BetMGM and others installed Georgia as a favorite in Monday's national championship game. Among those who raised eyebrows were former Bama players — who, more than anybody, know why Saban’s teams never lose as underdogs, and know how they respond to external doubt.

“I love us being the underdogs,” said Drew Davis, a starting tackle on the 2009 team.

The point spread (Georgia -3), said Preston Dial, a 2009 tight end, is “something that's absolutely been highlighted and circled” by Alabama’s staff as motivation ahead of Monday’s rematch.

It won’t swing the game, former players clarified in interviews. Nor are perceived slights the primary reason for past Bama beatdowns. But Saban, the players confirmed, does weaponize them. “When he's given ammunition that's not very common, which is them being an underdog, he's able to really capitalize and motivate guys to focus in on what they need to do,” said David Ross, an offensive lineman in 2009.

“We try to act like, at Alabama, we just kinda [keep our] heads down and go,” Dial said. “But if we find anything that we think can help fuel that fire, or help intensify the focus for another seven days, we're absolutely gonna use it. And Coach Saban will absolutely bring it up.”

ATLANTA, GA  DECEMBER 04:  Alabama linebacker Will Anderson Jr. (31) reacts following the conclusion of the SEC Championship college football game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and Georgia Bulldogs on December 4th, 2021 at Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta, GA.  (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Will Anderson celebrates after Alabama beat Georgia in the SEC title game. (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Yummy rat poison

Saban likes to talk about “rat poison.” He once defined it as “anything that distracts you from doing the things that you need to do to do your job.” It’s often a euphemism for public praise, which stokes complacency and inflated senses of self. It’s “all the dynasty s*** that you hear,” Dial said, and it has “zero impact on the end result of one football game.” So players are taught to block it out.

Saban, though, seeks it out and uses it “selectively,” Dial said. “We tried to circle the bulletin-board material and use that to feed our narrative.”

Davis remembers then-Alabama strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran posting fodder in the locker room.

Ross equates it to journalistic spin. Saban, he said, “uses it to generate a response.”

After he got a response in December — after the Tide beat undefeated Georgia, a 6.5-point favorite, for the SEC title — Saban thanked reporters for “a lot of really positive rat poison. The rat poison that you usually give us is usually fatal. But the rat poison that you put out there this week was yummy.”

And it apparently lingered. Bama arrived at the CFP semifinal last week as an assumed winner, as a 13-point favorite over overmatched Cincinnati. Still, star linebacker Will Anderson said he felt “like we're the underdog in this game. All year, we have been disrespected. I'm pretty sure we're still probably getting disrespected out there.”

Across America, eyes rolled.

But Anderson’s full statement provided a window into what former players say is the primary reason for the program’s underdog dominance. Anderson spoke about an unflinching internal focus. Former players explained that the dominance isn’t really about “chips on shoulders” or “added fuel.” It’s that Saban gives his players weekly evidence that if they simply do their jobs — if they correct mistakes, and study opponent tendencies, and sharpen their bodies and minds — they will succeed. So, no matter how justifiable the external doubt is, they trust him.

The common theme between the three prior underdog uprisings, Ross said, “is that they believe they can win.”

And if outsiders don’t? And players would like to derive extra ounces of determination from that? Even better.

Dial remembers using some “yummy rat poison” in 2009. Players heard, repeatedly, about how Tim Tebow’s Florida had “the greatest offense to ever set foot on a college football field.” They heard it, and convinced themselves it wasn’t true.

“We kinda looked at it as a joke,” Dial said. “Like, ‘we can't wait to go out there and kick their ass.’”

Where the real money lies

One other common theme, of course, is that in 2009, 2015 and 2021 alike, Alabama boasted bottomless depth charts of NFL talent. The 2015 roster overflowed with future pros. Similarly, in 2009, “people may have not realized how good some of the players on that team were,” Dial said, “until they went on to have illustrious careers.”

There were, though, legitimate reasons for doubt. The 2009 team had fallen short against Florida at the same stage a year earlier. The 2015 squad lost its SEC opener at home to Ole Miss. It fell out of the top 10. Two weeks later, it visited No. 8 Georgia.

In between, players heard the talk-show chatter, Richard Mullaney, a wide receiver on that team, recalled. “Everyone counting you out, ‘dynasty's over,’ this or that,” he said.

But in Tuscaloosa, at 323 Bryant Drive and 1102 Coliseum Drive? “Same schedule, same practice, same lifting, same everything,” Mullaney said.

Back in 2009, Davis recalled, a Friday Iron Bowl the previous week gave Bama an extra day to prep for Florida. Saban, though, didn’t call players in for an extra practice. He gave them a day off, and stayed true to an established routine.

The result, Dial said, “was the crispest week of practice I've ever seen, to date, at any level” of football.

Davis also pointed out that Bama’s underdog advantage isn’t emotional; it’s technical. It’s that Saban, perhaps more so than any other coach, can correct the shortcomings that made his team underdogs in the first place. “That's where the real money lies,” Davis said.

It’s also why some former players questioned whether Monday’s rematch fits the Underdog Bama mold. In this case, it’s Georgia — led by a Saban disciple, Kirby Smart — who must make corrections, and respond to last month’s thumping. Some Tide alums wondered whether Bama’s 41-24 SEC title game victory would lure players into a false sense of security, and make a repeat tough.

Then they saw the Vegas line, and they saw Saban appear on "College GameDay" the following morning, and most worries vanished.

“We’re still going to be underdogs in the game,” Saban said. “I can see why people would think that. It’s a challenge.”