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January 2, 2010

Column: The focus factor

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. _ The day after the SEC Championship Game, Nick Saban walked into a team meeting, drew a line on the board and delivered his most important message in terms of getting ready to play for the national title more than a month later.

"How every one of you guys manage, that is going to determine how well you play," he said. "Not just practice, how well you take care of yourself, how well you rest, the kind of shape you stay in, how you work out between now and then, how you practice, how you prepare yourself mentally to play in the game."

Saban should know after having already held aloft the crystal football and is now trying to become the first coach in college football history to win national championships at two different schools.

That's why when junior linebacker Rolando McClain got off the bus here Friday he called it a "business trip," because Alabama's focus doesn't appear to have wavered at all.

"I don't think there's any doubt," senior guard Mike Johnson said. "This is the biggest game any of us have ever played.

"Last year after the SEC Championship there was kind of a letdown, some people were kind of dragging through the Sugar Bowl. We weren't really playing for anything but the Sugar Bowl title and this year we have so much more to play for. It definitely shows in the spirit at practice, the way people have really gone about preparing for the game. Hopefully we can continue it."

To really appreciate what his team has already achieved, one only needs to go back to last summer and early fall and recall some of the things that could have easily derailed the season.

There was the announcement of NCAA probation for the textbook scandal, sophomores Julio Jones and Mark Ingram nearly getting suspended for a fishing trip and receiving what the NCAA called an impermissible benefit (and Jerrell Harris not being as fortunate), and the weekend before the season opener against Virginia Tech at the Georgia Dome senior defensive end Brandon Deaderick was shot in a botched carjacking.

Yet the Tide never lost focus.

Alabama's appeal of the order to vacate wins hasn't been a distraction, Ingram won the program's first Heisman Trophy and Deaderick amazingly played against the No. 7 Hokies, prompting Saban to say: "This team responded better to adversity in this game than we ever have."

It kept going, all the way to Pasadena. Alabama survived the helmet to Jones' knee, scares from Tennessee and Auburn and then got even in the No. 1 vs. 2 rematch with Florida in the SEC Championship Game.

Now, here we are at last, the Tide to face Texas, a team that's lost only one game the past two seasons, the last-second defeat to Texas Tech that cost it a spot in the 2008 Big 12 Championship on a tiebreaker. Even without the long break the players have given every indication that they're fully aware what's at stake, which is the key to not letting it all become be a distraction.

"It doesn't register until maybe a week later or so later, and you think 'Man, I hope I took opportunity to enjoy and celebrate, take everything in,'" senior linebacker Cory Reamer said about winning the SEC title. "I think it's going to be like another game when we get out there and then hit us down the road. I hate it's that way but that's how it usually is. You're so worn out and tired from playing you don't realize what you've just done until you're on the plane heading back."

It'll either be the happiest trip home, or the longest, after this final week of having just one thing on everyone's minds.

"This is the first time I've even been involved in a bowl game in which the entire emphasis is on football," junior quarterback Greg McElroy said.


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