Alabama and Clemson finished the 2016 season with the exact same records that they had last season. Both are 14-1 teams that played in the national championship game, again, and yet everything feels different now that their roles have been reversed and a rare feat has been achieved.
Alabama actually lost a championship game. Don't get used to the thought of Alabama losing, though, because it's not going to become a trend.
This time, Clemson is the national champion that was upset once in the regular season. Alabama is the runner-up that made it through its first 14 games unscathed before losing a heartbreaking game with the national title on the line to what proved to be a superior team. At a place like Alabama, every loss is treated like a crisis, but this is relatively new territory for the Crimson Tide under Nick Saban: They had not lost in a national championship or conference championship game since Dec. 6, 2008, when they were denied a spot in the BCS title game because of a loss to Florida in Atlanta.
"Every loss, if you're a competitor, is never good," Saban said. "But these kind, when you had a great season and the players had done so much to create an opportunity, it's tough to lose this way."
Saban has lost only 19 games in 10 seasons at Alabama. Six of those losses came in a rebuilding debut season in 2007. Over the past nine years, Alabama losses have been just about the rarest event in college football, and never before had Saban gotten to a national championship game and left empty-handed, making this perhaps the most painful loss that he has experienced. Faced with an opportunity to equal Bear Bryant's record six national titles, Saban couldn't quite pull it off. At least not yet.
What is clear is that Monday should not be treated as any sort of referendum on where Alabama is headed. The loss snapped the Crimson Tide's 26-game winning streak -- a remarkable run since the last time everybody wondered if the dynasty was finished, after a second straight defeat at the hands of Ole Miss -- but it's quite possible, even likely, that a new streak is about to begin.
When early odds for the 2017 national title were released, Alabama was still on top. When the preseason polls come out next August, Alabama should still be on top. When the national championship is played next January in Atlanta, there is a strong chance that the Crimson Tide will be there again. One loss to a worthy national champion -- and another transcendent performance from Deshaun Watson -- is unlikely to be any sort of ending.
Alabama losing is rare, but it has never been unbeatable. The timing for the one loss has just never been worse.
"One game doesn't define a team, and I think our team demonstrated time and time again this year that they were winners," Saban said. "I'm extremely disappointed that we didn't have a better outcome [Monday], but I'm also at the same time very proud of what this group of young men was able to accomplish."
It would be a mistake to say that Saban will be happy this offseason after Monday's loss. The result does, however, give Saban more problems to solve, and nobody is happier attempting to solve football problems than Saban. Instead of spending the next several months battling complacency after another championship, Saban has actual real motivation, wanting to climb back to the top after falling just short.
His star freshman quarterback, Jalen Hurts, struggled as a passer in the playoff. The defense, which played at an all-time great level most of the season, was just burned by Deshaun Watson for the second year in a row and will lose a ton of talent to the NFL. There is an endless supply of blue-chip talent ready to step up, but there is plenty for Saban to fix, even if the final record of 14-1 is excellent and the same as the previous national title-winning team.
"I think our guys played really, really hard," Saban said. "I think they made some fantastic catches and some great throws and catches, and the last couple drives when they had the ball, and you know, we just didn't make a play when we needed to. We needed to get a sack. We needed to get a takeaway. We needed to get a stop in the red zone, and they made the plays and we didn't. Look, there's not one play in the game that makes a difference in a game. We could have done a lot of things a lot better. But I have to say that I was proud of the way our guys competed in the game, and just sorry for all of them that we didn't finish it better."
Alabama is one of the best teams to ever lose in a national title game, and it did so with a new-look backfield that featured an 18-year-old quarterback in Hurts and inexperienced running backs. All of them will be back, including playoff breakout star tailback Bo Scarbrough, who broke a bone in his leg in the second half against Clemson. The Crimson Tide will have extraordinary talent on offense, with a full offseason for new coordinator Steve Sarkisian to prepare, and no defense is better equipped to reload, even if players like Jonathan Allen, Ryan Anderson, Tim Williams and Reuben Foster will be sorely missed.
Alabama lost, and this time there is no game a week later to bounce back. Instead, there will be an offseason filled with second-guessing and criticism. Prior to Monday, Saban had lost three postseason games at Alabama. After one, the Tide bounced back to make the playoff. After the other two, they bounced back to win the national championship.
Clemson winning on Monday broke up the monotony of Alabama owning the sport, but 2017 will prove that Alabama has not given up its stranglehold on the national college football conversation.
It was Clemson's year, but we're still in the Alabama era.