NEW ORLEANS — Not long after the Alabama football team defeated Auburn in the annual Iron Bowl five weeks ago, the Crimson Tide’s leadership group − a collection of players who serve as a source of influence and guidance at each position − got together.
It’s a group that includes team captains Bryce Young, Will Anderson and Jordan Battle, of course, along with several others. And the purpose of the meeting was to air out their feelings about their personal futures.
A Sugar Bowl bid had been extended, but the players in the room had forthcoming NFL careers to consider.
Who was in? Who was out? Indecision wasn’t allowed.
“We all made a promise to each other that we would play and that we would go out and compete one last time with each other,” linebacker Henry To’o To’o said following the Crimson Tide’s 45-20 victory over Kansas State on Saturday at Caesars Superdome. “We just had a conversation about, you know, ‘What are everyone’s intentions? What do we want out of this season? What does the team mean to us?’ I think the biggest thing it came down to was that as leaders, we can’t preach something to the guys and not follow through with it.”
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Remember that, if nothing else, about an Alabama team that can’t be remembered for a national championship, or even a Southeastern Conference title. Remember that − in an era of college football that has never been more about the individual, has never been less about team, and has never been more understanding of players opting out of bowl games − this team forged a resolve from the inside out and held it together. The result? Not a single opt-out teamwide. The leadership group set a tone of resolve with a collective decision, and, according to Battle, that made an impact on some pro-caliber talents who aren’t in the leadership group.
“Oh yeah, for sure. That was great encouragement,” Battle said.
It not only preserved the depth chart, it made every difference on the field as well. Alabama players either certain to or expected to be drafted in April accounted for five touchdown passes and 76 rushing yards on offense; and on defense, two interceptions, a sack and five tackles for loss. The players who decided to stay, in short, were the ones who delivered.
Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban is fond of saying that each team leaves a legacy of its own, like a life that is born in offseason workouts and dies, as a champion or not, upon playing its last game. Under that perspective, this team was able to summon a level of gumption that a couple of its predecessors, like the ones that were drubbed by Utah (2008) and Oklahoma (2013) in this very building, could not.
Pride, in the end, was all it had left to play for.
“We didn’t have the season we wanted to,” said wide receiver Jermain Burton. “Everybody knows that. … We were playing for the pride of the program.”
As the Crimson Tide made its way to the team bus to leave, Michigan and TCU were just getting under way for the first of two College Football Playoff semifinals. It was on every flat-screen in the building, but still felt a thousand miles away.
But the players who walked past those TVs left with the kind of bond that can be a starting point for a 2023 team about to be born.
Promise made. Promise kept.
Reach Chase Goodbread at [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @chasegoodbread.
This article originally appeared on The Tuscaloosa News: Bryce Young, Will Anderson and Alabama football avoiding opt-outs