In the week leading up to the contest, Franchione had observed that the game could be a measuring stick, showing how far Alabama had progressed in rebuilding toward national prominence. "If Oklahoma is a Top 5 team--and I'm not saying they're not--but if they are we certainly played them pretty well at their house," Franchione noted. "If we continue to improve and get better and prepare and stay healthy…"
Clearly the Tide is capable of playing toe-to-toe with the best teams in college football, but moral victories are for pretenders. And Franchione came to Alabama to compete for national titles. "The key now will be what we do with this game," he said. "I certainly believe it can be a game that we can build on. But only time will tell how we respond to it and how much we'll be able to build on.
"We can sit around and pat ourselves on the back and say ‘We played Oklahoma close at their house.' Or we can say, ‘We played them really well, but that's not enough. We need to do more.' That will be critical."
Having turned around perennial losing programs in his career (no offense to New Mexico, of course), Franchione knows how tempting it is for players to accept less than the best. But Alabama--with its unmatched tradition of excellence--is not Southwest Texas State.
"I don't think these players will sit around and savor a defeat to a top-ranked team," Franchione stated. "I've been in programs that would have. When you're trying to turn a program around, sometimes people pat you on the back for playing a good team close but not quite winning. You can cling to that feeling too long and not let it go.
"But I don't think that exists on this team."
Sophomore guard Justin Smiley echoed his coach's thoughts following the game. ""We had a chance to win and there were probably five or six plays that could have gone the other way and we would have won. We are going to go back and correct those things and learn from our mistakes."
During the roller-coaster 2001 season, the new staff worked feverishly to instill a winning attitude among players that had frankly become demoralized.
And the lessons did not come easily.
But Franchione thinks his team may be turning a corner. "We are dramatically better than last year at this time," he noted. "We've won five of our last six games, and the team that beat us was ranked No. 2 in the country. I know we've come a long way in the past year. What we do to build on what we've done will be the key as we make decisions about what we are."
With less than four minutes to go in Saturday's game, Oklahoma found itself down four points and needing an 80-yard drive to score. But the Sooners found a way to win, a trait that Franchione says is characteristic of championship teams. "That's something that comes over time," he explained. "Having been in that situation before (coaching a team accustomed to winning), the belief that you're going to find a way against all odds to win remains very strong.
"I don't think Oklahoma ever really thought they were going to lose the game. They got a little out of control, and they certainly were pressed. But they kept playing, and they found a way. They had somebody make a play for them."
25-2 over the last two years, including the 2000 national title, Oklahoma has certainly gotten used winning football games. "When you get into those type streaks your confidence and belief remain high," Franchione said. "Championship football teams find ways to do those things.
"We're still acquiring that skill. But I think we're getting closer."
Franchione wants his team to remember the bitter feeling of having lost a game it could have/should have won. Learn from your mistakes--but then move on.
"A little bit of anger at having the game slip away would be a good thing," he acknowledged. "But at 5 o'clock (Sunday afternoon) our team meeting will be over with, and we need to look ahead--not behind. Whether it's a win or a loss, whatever it is you put it away and you go on. You learn from it.
"There won't be any good to come out of clinging to this game. The good will be what we do with what we learned."