An underdog for the 5th time since 2009, powerhouse Alabama embraces rare chance to prove 'em wrong

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Alabama head coach Nick Saban walks during practice Thursday, Dec. 28, 2023, in Carson, Calif. Alabama is scheduled to play against Michigan on New Year's Day in the Rose Bowl, a semifinal in the College Football Playoff. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

LOS ANGELES – If Nick Saban cared about such things, he could count all the times Alabama has been a betting underdog since 2009 on one hand.

He would have to use two of those fingers for the Crimson Tide's last and next games, however.

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Fourth-seeded Alabama (12-1) is not the betting favorite against Michigan (13-0) in its College Football Playoff semifinal at the Rose Bowl, according to FanDuel Sportsbook and the other big oddsmakers. It’s only the fifth time over the past 14 seasons that the most decorated college football program of the 21st century is an actual underdog — even if the Wolverines are only favored by 1 1/2 points.

It’s also the Tide's second straight game as an underdog, following the SEC championship game against defending national champ Georgia four weeks ago. Alabama hadn't been an underdog in consecutive games since 2007, Saban's first year in charge.

Point spreads and Vegas opinions usually mean nothing to players. But perceived doubt and disrespect are high-octane fuel to almost every modern athlete — and a program that's been a near-constant favorite every time it takes the field for 15 years is feasting on its chance to play an underdog.

“It is something we rally around,” Alabama safety Malachi Moore said Friday. “We know we still have something to prove to people. We had to earn our respect, and we try to do that every day.”

The Tide are relishing the opportunity to prove people wrong, but also to show what they’ve built during a tumultuous season. They've reached a familiar destination with 12 wins, an SEC title and another CFP berth, but got there on a highly unfamiliar path.

Alabama had a painfully slow start, lowlighted by a home loss to Texas and an unimpressive showing against South Florida one week later. But the Tide have since rolled to 11 consecutive victories of varying impressiveness, including a historically exciting Iron Bowl victory on a last-minute touchdown pass, capped by their stirring upset of Georgia.

“We still have doubters that we shouldn’t be here,” Alabama defensive lineman Justin Eboigbe said. "Ever since Week 2, I feel we’ve had the underdog mentality, and we proved a lot of people wrong. We’re just trying to prove the people that still believe in us right, and prove ourselves right, because we earned the opportunity to be in this game, and it’s on us Monday to show the reason why.”

The Tide survived the September doldrums, a brief upheaval at quarterback with the one-game benching of Jalen Milroe, and a perceived lack of true star power across the roster — at least when compared to previous Alabama teams. This group might not have the household names of previous national champions, but the players believe they've got more togetherness and cohesion than any Tide team they've seen.

Moore, the outgoing team leader on defense, can cite several examples of a process that started in the offseason when the players organized paintball games, fishing trips and four-wheeler excursions.

On the way back from Alabama’s Rose Bowl practice in suburban Carson on Thursday, the entire bus sang along to the song on the speakers. When the players got back to the team hotel, they filtered in and out of each other’s rooms, making jokes and reveling in the fun of a trip with college buddies.

Moore credits this bond partly to Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, the Tide's two-time national champion cornerback and an NFL veteran who returned to become Alabama's director of player development this season. The 31-year-old Clinton-Dix urged the team leaders to plan their quality time together.

“He says that’s what they did back in the day,” Moore said of Clinton-Dix, whose Alabama teams were the favorites in every game they played from 2011-13.

“We weren't doing it as much (last year), and this year we put an emphasis on it, and it's turned out great," Moore added. "I definitely see what he’s talking about with close-knit togetherness. We all know what we’re working for, and we all know how much work each of us put in. We just want to see each other succeed and be at our best.”

Although the Tide are underdogs on paper, they're still Alabama — and the players believe they can hold the mark set by their predecessors while getting the chance to actually prove somebody wrong for a change.

"Being the standard, it really means a lot, because that’s why I came to Alabama — for the standard,” left guard Tyler Booker said. “To hear somebody challenge that, you’re going to take that personally as a competitor.”


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