As one wag noted, if winning isn't important, why keep score? And the Tide players would love the chance to prove their worth in this year's SEC Championship game. "It's frustrating," senior defensive tackle Jarret Johnson acknowledged, "because we do have a good football team this year. We would have had a chance to go to Atlanta."
Playing as well or better than any other team in the conference, it's hard for the players not to play the "what if" game. "You say it some," Johnson admitted. "We're excited about this season. We're playing really well. We've got a lot done. But at the same time it's frustrating, because you can't play for the championship."
Johnson and the other Bama seniors have been there before, competing for and winning the league title in 1999. The way he sees it the younger Tide players are being robbed of their place in the limelight. Johnson explained, "Brodie Croyle is my roommate. We were sitting there and talking about it the other day. I told him ‘I don't care how good we're doing. You could have had a ring this season.'
"It's just really frustrating."
If rules are broken, then the guilty should be punished. Johnson understands that.
But he can't help but feel that the wrong people are paying the price. "The most frustrating thing is that nobody here did anything," Johnson said. "No player on this team did anything. No coach on this staff did anything. Yet we're the ones being punished for it.
"It's really frustrating, because we would have had a chance (to be SEC champions)."
Prohibited from proving their worth on the field, Johnson and his teammates are trying to show the world that whichever teams play in Atlanta, they won't be the SEC's best. "Our goal is to finish up with the best record," he explained. "From our point of view, we view that as a legitimate goal. Without a doubt, you see that 5-1 record, and that's what we're focusing on."
Just three games remain on the Tide's schedule, but their outcome one way or another will determine if Alabama can call itself the Best in the West. "We're taking them one game at a time," Johnson said. "LSU and Auburn are what we have next. We're about to finish our season with two really good ball teams. These will be the two toughest teams in the West, besides us."
It's common practice for championship teams to issue rings, commemorating their feat. If the 2002 Tide finishes with the best record in the conference, it's possible the staff will reward the players for that accomplishment. "I've heard rumors," Johnson said, "but nothing definite."
The worth of a team is measured in the won/loss column, but defenses must rely on statistics. Yielding 249.10 yards per game, Alabama ranks third in the nation in Total Defense, less than three yards per game behind top-rated LSU.
"We do talk about it some," Johnson acknowledged, "but it's not something that you want to harp on too much. I think there are five teams within 15 yards of each other. So if you have one bad game you're going to drop down. Our main thing is to keep focusing on our goals. Take care of your assignment and play team defense.
"You do take pride in it. We enjoy it, but it's not something we really harp on."
A mainstay all season long in the middle of Bama's defensive line, Johnson has 35 tackles, four sacks, 15 quarterback hurries and three forced fumbles to his credit. "The biggest thing with Jarret is that his commitment to this football team is unquestioned," said Tide Head Coach Dennis Franchione. "His work habits are second to none. The energy that he brings to the practice field and to the game. His grit and fight and mental toughness and ‘next play' attitude are things that spread throughout his teammates.
"The respect that Jarret gets is because he talks the talk, but he also walks the walk."
Obviously better overall, the 2002 Tide defense has also played significantly better in the fourth quarter. "Playing well in the fourth quarter was one of our goals this year," Johnson related. "When you get right down to it, the first three quarters are just building up to the fourth. That's when the game is won. We didn't play well in the fourth quarter any last year. This season it was one of our main goals, and we've done that. We've accomplished that goal. Hopefully, we'll continue to."
Last week versus Mississippi State, Bama's fourth-quarter defense was put to the test. On two consecutive possessions the Bulldogs began drives inside the Tide red zone. And both times Johnson and his running mates held their ground.
"Trotting out there onto the field those two times we really didn't say that much to each other," Johnson related. "Some guys will talk to get you pumped up, but we knew what we had to do. The important thing was we didn't get freaked out about it. I was proud to be a part of that."
Not counting those two fourth-quarter stops, Johnson was disappointed in the defense's Saturday performance. But nobody can be perfect all the time, and he was pointedly pleased with how his teammates responded. Johnson explained, "We didn't play well the first half versus Mississippi State, and after the game we of course weren't happy with our performance. But I was so proud to have been a part of that defense.
"We went in at halftime and didn't get all flustered. We weren't yelling at each other. We just sat down and said, ‘Hey, we've just got to play better in the second half.' And we did that. That's a sign of a mature football team."
The NCAA will prevent this year's Tide squad from claiming any official championship, but Johnson and his fellow seniors are pursuing a more important goal. "We're trying to build something for future teams here. We're trying to get the feeling back. You've got to get used to winning. You've got to expect to win. That's what we're trying to build here for these young guys.
"When you lose, you should get tears in your eyes, because it hurts so badly. But when you win, that's just business as usual."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Normally this would be a subscription story, available only to Crimson Ticket or Total Access holders. But we're ahead of our quota this week, so we're making it available to all BamaMag.com readers. And we also obviously hope that some "reluctant subscribers" will be prompted to give us a try.
Only $7.95 a month ($21.95 for three months) gains access to the best, most comprehensive information on the Crimson Tide football team available anywhere. For dedicated Alabama fans, we can pretty much guarantee satisfaction.