Being the Underdog Starts with Respecting the Opposition
The Alabama Crimson Tide has done it again. For the ninth time under head coach Nick Saban, college football's resident juggernaut program will be featured in the national championship game, once again matching up with the Georgia Bulldogs.
Unlike the previous eight times, this Alabama team felt the disrespect creeping in with uncomfortable rationality. This team struggled early: lost the first game to an unranked opponent under Saban since 2007, needed multiple overtimes to beat Auburn, and escaped Bryant-Denny Stadium with an unexpectedly close win over a floundering LSU team.
Though Bryce Young became the first quarterback in school history to win the Heisman Trophy, it came with the caveat that the talent around him was not on par with his predecessors.
With every comment of praise surrounding the 2021 Crimson Tide, each was followed by dreaded "buts" and hopes that maybe this season will show the first real chink in the luxurious metal of the armor that protects Saban's juggernaut.
Unfortunately for the college football world eager to see a new guard watching over the College Football Playoff National Championship Trophy, the Crimson Tide faced its adversity with humility and is on a path to grasp the same accolades of the teams that came before it.
Alabama did so by securing an underdog mentality heading into a game in which the Crimson Tide would face the first Group of 5 program to reach the College Football Playoff in its eight-year history. It seemed baffling to the outside world and surprising to many within the fanbase that Will Anderson and his teammates could take such a mentality into a game against the Cincinnati Bearcats in which it was favored by 13 points.
But truly it's a master class effort by Saban to reinstall an oft-overlooked mantra of his: "Never lose respect for winning."
That stretches into respecting the opponent.
Sure many believed that Cincinnati stood no chance against Alabama, and after a performance that saw Alabama rush for 301 yards en route to a 21-point victory even more take a stance that Cincinnati proved it didn't belong.
While the latter idea was outright disproved on an effort and performance level by the Bearcats, none of that noise mattered for Alabama. The Crimson Tide underdog mentality was an internal motivation brought on by external factors, but it wasn't at the expense of the true underdog in the football game.
Early in the season, Alabama struggled to do this. Florida, Auburn, LSU and even Mercer to a certain degree all found advantages in Alabama's misplaced arrogance.
Cincinnati was given no such favor.
The Bearcats disrupted Alabama's passing game and despite the feeling of domination on the field in favor of the Crimson Tide from the opening kickoff, Cincinnati never gave a look of being out of place. Alabama won decisively despite being far from perfect. Now, the perspective of the team isn't a state of vulnerability as it was early in the season, it's instead a hunger to prove Alabama is what it's been for the past 13 years - the best program in the country.
Alabama proved to be the better team Friday afternoon in Texas, and will now take on a team that the Crimson Tide have already bested once this season.
On the betting slips, Alabama will again be the underdog, Georgia opens as a 2.5-point favorite. Internally, the Crimson Tide will keep the same energy that has propelled it to victory in its past two contests.
That underdog mentality isn't a facade to feign unusual confidence but is instead a manner of respect for the opponent. Alabama may already have dominated Georgia once, but there's no guarantee of doing so again.
When Alabama travels to Indianapolis to play the Bulldogs in Lucas Oil Stadium on January 10 for the chance at a 19th national championship, it'll be as a total underdog once again. The Crimson Tide can't lose perspective because of the familiar faces lining up across the line of scrimmage. And fans shouldn't expect this team to do that. By all accounts, this team likes being told it can't. Because it will; in the most unique way possible for a Crimson Tide team.
Many people believe strongly that respect is earned, not given. Ironically, Alabama is seeking to earn back the respect once forcibly taken by its previous iterations by simply giving respect to every situation, to every opponent and to every victory.