Mention the possibility of repeating as national champions to members of Alabama’s senior class, and you get a customary shrug of the shoulders.
But mention the possibility of carving out the kind of legacy that most senior classes can only dream about, and you’re on to something.
When you’re playing for Nick Saban, the future consists of the next play, the next practice, the next game. And basking in anything you’ve done previously is as foreign to him as snow plows are to folks in the Florida Keys.
That said, the nine scholarship seniors on this Alabama football team understand unequivocally what’s at stake this Saturday against Georgia in the SEC championship game.
Yes, it would be the Crimson Tide’s first SEC title since 2009 if they can win, but the real prize would come a little more than a month later -- a shot at their third national championship in the past four years.
“Our goal was to accomplish something legendary that nobody else has, and we still have a chance to do that,” said senior center Barrett Jones, whose versatility and team-first attitude has epitomized this senior class.
Jones was a right guard on the 2009 national championship team and a left tackle on last season’s national championship team. He shifted to center this season after All-SEC performer William Vlachos graduated.
“That’s what we’re all about, everybody doing their job and sacrificing for the good of the team,” senior linebacker Nico Johnson said. “That’s not just a bunch of talk with us. We believe in it and live by it and hold each other accountable.”
During the preseason, Johnson said a member of the U.S. Marines came to speak to the team and delivered a powerful message, which has endured.
“He talked about how they would practice over and over again before they went out on their mission and made an oath with each other not to be that person that gets everybody killed,” Johnson recounted. “We’ve looked at it from a football perspective and remind each other not to be that one person to cause us to lose a football game.”
Not since Notre Dame in 1946, 1947 and 1949 has a school won three outright national championships over a four-year period.
But the Alabama seniors insist they are not chasing history as much as they are perfection and being the most dominant team every time they step onto the field.
It’s a mindset that has become a way of life for everybody associated with the program. It’s also a mindset that has evolved.
“When we came here, it wasn’t the Alabama people know now,” said Jones, who was part of that celebrated 2008 signing class and redshirted his first season. “We were coming off a 7-6 season, and it wasn’t like it is now around here.
“Those of us who were here haven’t forgotten what it took to get to this point. We’ve seen the worst of it, and that’s only created a stronger bond because we’ve been through so much together.”
“It’s a special group, and so many people have played vital roles,” Jones said. “It’s not just the guys who are going to be first-rounders, either.”
One of the things that has separated this group is that it learned the hard way in 2010 how not to manage success. That team was probably the most talented that Saban has had at Alabama, but it lost three games.
“The guys in this senior class that went through that in 2010 have helped the younger guys understand what failure feels like without actually experiencing it,” Jones said. “The other thing is that Coach Saban does a great job of keeping us hungry, and then it’s on us as the players to train leaders who train other leaders.
“That standard will never change.”
As bitter as the Texas A&M loss was, Johnson said it was a sobering reminder of what happens in the SEC when you’re not on top of your game.
“We know how small the window for error is,” Johnson said. “I think we thought that Texas A&M was new to the conference and we’d be able to do enough to get by, and they beat us. We’ve got a new life now and have to take advantage of this opportunity.
“There is no room for complacency on this team. We went through that in 2010 and don’t want to ever have that feeling again. The way we look at it is that if you’re being complacent around here, you’re pretty much being a traitor.
“We’re not going to let each other down.”