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NEW ORLEANS — A quarterback who has won 25 games in 27 starts eases himself into his chair inside the belly of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. He doesn’t smile or say much at all, which is not out of the ordinary.
“We have been here before,” Jalen Hurts says following Alabama’s 24-6 victory over Clemson in the Sugar Bowl, securing his second appearance in the College Football Playoff National Championship in as many years. “We can’t be too happy.”
Despite throwing one interception all season, the topic regurgitated on message boards and at tailgates isn’t where Hurts sits among all-time Alabama quarterbacks. It’s whether he deserves to be the starter at all.
A defensive coordinator, 15 minutes removed from perhaps the most successful game plan of his football life, wears a brown suit and hugs his players as he exits.
While the rest of the team has yet to make it to the locker room, Jeremy Pruitt—with two football teams to coach—has expedited his departure from New Orleans.
For at least a handful of hours on Monday night, before Alabama begins its Georgia prep, he will shape his vision of Tennessee, the program he will lead after Alabama plays in the title game. But in the meantime, Pruitt will coach two longtime rivals at once. While such a notion would be considered impossible anywhere else, at Alabama, it’s almost ritual.
A head coach, having watched his team separate, uncorks a perfectly timed sideline outburst deep in the second half—”ass chewings,” former Alabama assistant Lane Kiffin called them. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who is on the receiving end, is all smiles after the game as he carries his young daughter around the celebration.
The cause of the outburst? Daboll called two consecutive passes with Alabama in control rather than running the football. “You couldn’t tell?” Saban says afterward when asked about the exchange. The room erupts in laughter, although Saban, like his quarterback, has minimal response.
A program that has won 88 of its last 97 football games despite a yearly exodus of players and staff, secures its sixth appearance in the national championship over the past nine seasons.
Each loss is treated as the beginning of the end—the moment the dynasty starts to to show its cracks. Anything short of a national title, a moment the greatest programs in the sport just hope to play for on occasion, is viewed as a failure.
“You come in here knowing what others have done,” running back Damien Harris says. “That’s what you have to live up to. It’s not pressure. It’s reality. We are who we are competing against.”
And, at least most of the time, they wouldn’t have it any other way.
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There is crimson and joy inside the Harrah’s Casino in New Orleans deep into the night on January 1, which blends into January 2 as morning nears. Alabama fans litter Bourbon Street in the moments following its team’s revenge victory over Clemson, meandering down the road and into the casino, hoping a memorable night will carry over to the tables.
For the first time in a long time, these people seem happy. Not content or relieved or anxious about a more important game still to be played, but overjoyed at the position they’re in.
After a deflating loss to Auburn late in the year, hope was temporarily abandoned. Playoff plans were dashed. The season took a turn. But now? In the aftermath of a game that felt very much like what Alabama usually does, order has been restored.
“They have been at the absolute pinnacle for nine years in a row, which is crazy to say,” says Cecil Hurt, who has covered Alabama football for more than three decades for the Tuscaloosa News. “With that said, it’s more or less happened here before from 1971 through 1979. It’s not normal. It’s as abnormal as anything you can conceive of. But if you’re a 50-year-old Alabama fan, this is the second time this has happened. How do you convince people this isn’t normal when it’s been their whole life?”
The expectation, regardless of team or opponent, is that Alabama will win. Despite having nine players selected in the first 79 picks of the 2017 NFL draft, despite losing offensive coordinators Lane Kiffin and then his replacement, Steve Sarkisian, Alabama opened as the favorite to win this year’s College Football Playoff.
This comes two years after losing defensive coordinator Kirby Smart to Georgia, who, like Pruitt, stayed on through the end of the season to coach the team before departing. Although the program is now in a state of constant flux, it continues to win at the same alarming rate at which it is expected to win.
“The fans don’t perceive what Nick Saban is doing as amazing, remarkable and historic as much as they perceive that he just got things back to normal,” Hurt adds. “They assume that Nick will take care of it, much like Bear Bryant did. But Bryant never had this kind of chaos.”
Alabama has been favored in 112 of its last 113 football games, a stretch that dates back to the 2009 season. The one Saturday that Alabama was an underdog came back on October 3, 2015, at Georgia—the last time these two teams played before Monday night.
As an underdog, Saban’s team delivered a dominating 38-10 victory in a persistent rain. From there, Alabama didn’t lose again, beating Clemson in the national championship. It hasn’t been an underdog since.
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The moments are still vivid for Jake Coker. Lined up with the captains for the national anthem before the 2016 national championship game, he remembers thinking about his brother—a member of the Air Force—watching the game in Turkey thousands of miles away.
But he also remembers the boos that rained down in Bryant–Denny Stadium earlier that season on October 10, 2015, one week after Alabama demolished Georgia. Coming off a performance that saved their season, the Tide looked lifeless against Arkansas deep into the first half. And even though Alabama eventually won the game, the fans expressed their displeasure throughout.
“I love Alabama and its fans because they are passionate,” Coker, who works for a timber company in Mobile, Alabama, says. “But it can be a tough group to play for. I grew up an Alabama football fan and dreamed of winning a national championship. I wanted to win one for my home state so bad, it took a toll on me.”
Coker joined Alabama in 2014 as a graduate transfer from Florida State—eligible to start immediately as a redshirt junior. Although the general consensus was that Coker would start right away, Blake Sims won the starting job that year.
The following season, Coker, who was surrounded by a Heisman-winning running back and an abundance of future first-round draft picks, got his chance. In a season filled with ups and downs, Coker ultimately guided Alabama to a national title.
“I know what it feels like to play at Alabama, and I know that pressure too well,” Coker adds. “You’re expected every year to win a national championship. And when you don’t, it’s a disappointment. It can be a lot.”
Although the circumstances are different, Jalen Hurts finds himself facing similar scrutiny and pressure—at least in the eyes of some who demand something more than near perfection.
His record of 25-2 over two seasons includes two College Football Playoff semifinal victories and thus two appearances in the national championship. This season, Hurts has accounted for 25 touchdowns and only one interception.
His box score numbers are rarely gaudy, which is a product of Alabama’s style of play as well as his growth still to come at the position. His efficient but not prodigious numbers have left some clamoring for more—specifically for freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, whose presence at Alabama has been felt since the moment he committed.
Just 19 years old, Hurts has not allowed the pressure of it all to impact him, at least openly. Since his first public meeting with the media in December last year, he has been quiet and diligent with his words.
But there’s a weight that comes with being the starting quarterback at Alabama—a weight few true sophomores could possibly relate to.
“As the quarterback for Alabama, anything less than absolute perfection is a disappointment,” offensive lineman Jonah Williams says of Hurts. “I think that’s probably an unfair position to put someone in, but I don’t think he’s a guy that cares so much what other people think. For the team, pretty much any fault is magnified due to the fact that in our history, we generally haven’t had many.”
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It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when expectations at Alabama were reasonable enough. When the foundation