HOOVER, Alabama — Alabama coach Nick Saban thinks something happened to his team's chemistry between the Southeastern Conference championship game and the national semifinals against Ohio State.
Saban said Wednesday at SEC media days one factor was that six juniors received their evaluations for the NFL draft during that period. He wants that date pushed back until after the final game to prevent such potential distractions.
"We had six guys in this situation this past year and 11 the year before," Saban said. "So we're trying to get ready for a game, and all of a sudden a guy finds out he's a first-round draft pick or a guy that thought he was a first-round draft pick finds out he's not a first-round draft pick, and we're trying to get ready to play a playoff game."
Whatever the reason, a defense that shut down Missouri was manhandled by Ohio State in the College Football Playoff. The potent offense made some costly mistakes — including three turnovers — and for the second straight year the Crimson Tide fell short of a national title.
Receiver Amari Cooper was Alabama's only first-round pick last season, though tailback T.J. Yeldon and safety Landon Collins were early second-rounders. All three were underclassmen.
It is more of an issue with Alabama than most programs, with an annual early exodus of star players to the NFL.
"I'd say guys got distracted by people in their ear," said linebacker Reggie Ragland, who opted to return for his senior season. "With me, the people that were in my ear, I wouldn't answer the phone. I was just worried about playing football.
"A lot of guys got sidetracked by that, but I think this year coming up we've got a lot of guys that are not worried about the NFL. They're just worried about right now."
Ohio State beat Alabama 42-35 on its way to the national title. Ragland said the Buckeyes were "a formidable opponent" but feels the Tide could have at least shown up with a better performance.
Alabama's defense, typically among the nation's best, has been victimized late in back-to-back seasons. Ragland thinks teams aren't as intimidated as they once were when facing the Tide.
"Guys aren't scared to play us anymore," he said. "That's a fact. Guys are coming in very happy and excited to play us. I used to see teams break down in the first half and just give up playing. We've got to get that back."
Now, the Tide must replace nine offensive starters, including quarterback Blake Sims. Sims' backup, Jake Coker, and David Cornwell are vying to be the starting quarterback, and Saban said he has no timetable for making that call.
But those are preseason concerns. Postseason was the main topic Wednesday.
Ultimately, Alabama is hoping to be in position to contend for titles and come through at the end this time after a stretch when the Tide won three national championships in four years.
"It's always just finish, finish, finish," said tailback Kenyan Drake, who is returning from a broken leg. "That's our whole motto, and we haven't done that the last two years."
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