TAMPA, Fla. -- Athletes and coaches are always obsessed with people who do not believe in them. Michael Jordan was of course most famous for this, inventing imaginary enemies to doubt his abilities -- they were imaginary because no human on this physical plane of existence ever doubted Michael Jordan's abilities -- so that he could motivate himself to reach new levels of achievements. The most absurd example of this had to be the USA men's basketball team at the Rio Olympics, in which several players, after winning the gold medal, literally everyone on the planet expected them to win, claimed some sort of variation on "nobody believed in us." The human mind is a powerful thing, but you can trick it to make it even more powerful.
Alabama, as it heads into Monday night's College Football Playoff championship game against Clemson (8 p.m. ET on ESPN), seemingly has no reason to claim any sort of external "disrespect." The Crimson Tide:
- Are one win away from becoming the first major college football team to go 15-0.
- Only won one game by fewer than 10 points.
- Have not lost a game in 478 days.
- Are attempting to win their fifth national championship in the past eight years.
- Have put together the best recruiting class in college football for six years running.
- Will have roughly half their roster playing in the NFL next season.
- Have inspired several of their conference rivals (Florida, Georgia, Auburn) to either cower in fear, desperately attempt to bring in former assistants of Nick Saban to impersonate Alabama's success, or both.
- Have given up only 16 touchdowns in 14 games, and have scored 11 touchdowns on defense.
- Are responsible for just about every other possible superlative your mind can come up with.
Alabama's dominance is unprecedented and total. If it is able to win tonight, Saban will have, essentially, solved the game of college football.
This sport, in which billions of dollars float in every year in an increasingly cutthroat, insanely competitive marketplace, will have been mastered by Saban and the Tide, a perpetual championship machine that creates five-star recruits three-deep at every position and plods unstoppably forward, leaving all challengers bleeding and distraught in their wake. They kill you, they claim your spouse and children, they burn down your village, they sit in your favorite chair. They're Alabama. A championship tonight confirms them as the most indestructible dynasty happening in the exact era in which it's most difficult to be an indestructible dynasty.
And still: People always think Alabama is about to lose.
Clemson, a solid football team that is the only team to give Alabama much of a game in the past 478 days, has become a bit of a hipster underdog pick to win Monday's game. Five of Sports Illustrated's seven experts picked the Tigers. Three of CBS's five experts picked the Tigers. Three of USA Today's five experts picked the Tigers. (SB Nation is holding out.) The talking points are easy enough to understand. Clemson almost beat Alabama last season and looked fantastic against Ohio State in the CFP semifinal. Nick Saban essentially fired Lane Kiffin and will be using an offensive coordinator who had barely met the true freshman quarterback before last week. With Clemson fans outnumbering Alabama fans here in Tampa, it sort of feels like Clemson momentum gathering.
But this still feels like narrative hopefulness, a desire for everybody to have a different story to tell than just another round of "Alabama kills everybody again." People want to bury Alabama because college football is just less fun when one team monotonously crushes everyone under their boot. But let us not forget the last time everyone wanted to bury Alabama. It was, perhaps not coincidentally, 478 days ago, the day after Alabama's loss to Mississippi, a silly, sloppy game in which every bounce seemed to go the Rebels' way, one in which everything went wrong for Alabama and it still almost won. After that game, it became a collective shout: The Alabama dynasty is over. Seriously, I know it seems hard to believe now, but I swear, everybody was doing it. SEC Country helpfully compiled all the pundits who were done with Alabama. Some highlights:
Dan Wolken, USA Today: "The dynasty argument is about a state of mind, a state of being. That's gone. That no longer exists at Alabama."
Matt Hayes, Sporting News: "There's no greater indicator of a lost dynasty, no more prominent red flag, than ignoring the obvious: this is not the same Alabama program of years gone by."
Clay Travis, Fox Sports: "The rest of the SEC has caught up with Alabama and Nick Saban, particularly Saban's defense. Alabama built its dynasty on defense and the simple fact is Saban's defense is downright ordinary now… In two weeks, when the Tide roll into Georgia and lose, it will be a perfect capstone to the rise and fall of the Tide dynasty."
Of course, the primary job description of any pundit is to be wrong: It's almost a public service. Trust me, I've been there; I'm there all the time.
Your AFC South season preview. Get on the Jaguars bandwagon! https://t.co/8pWsQGkm1n- Will Leitch (@williamfleitch) August 18, 2016
But we were crawling all over each other to write Alabama off, largely because, well, we were tired of them. That game that Travis was referring to, the game in Georgia two weeks later? Well, that was the last time Alabama was ever the Vegas underdog heading into kickoff. What happened? Well:
That game, one of the saddest sporting events I've ever attended, essentially shattered Georgia's football program, leading to a crisis of confidence that ended with Mark Richt being fired and the Bulldogs hiring Saban's top assistant to replace him. Alabama rolled, and it's been rolling ever since. That was the last game in which picking against Alabama was a popular, largely consensus thing to do. And that was how it responded: full-blown destruction.
Alabama has noticed that Clemson is the hipster pick. Which means the Tide can use that famous "nobody believed in us" edge that every team desires. "[The media] is selling us as possible underdogs, possible upset," linebacker Tim Williams said. Uh-oh. That tends to mean big trouble.
When you sit in a room long enough waiting for a football game to start, you can talk yourself into anything, and this week, many of us have talked ourselves into Clemson. But this is Nick Saban and Alabama. They have solved this game, and I suspect they're going to show us all again Monday night. We'll try to doubt them again next year, just to keep it interesting. They'll hear us then too. And they'll just show us again.