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SEC Media Days Football

Alabama head coach Nick Saban signs autographs during the NCAA college football Southeastern Conference Media Days, Wednesday, July 17, 2019, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

HOOVER, Ala.— The lounge lizards began to slither into the lobby at dawn, decked in crimson with their artifacts hungry for ink. It’s a rite of passage for Alabama fans every July. Young and old, they crowd The Wynfrey Hotel entrance, the grown men resting their bellies against the rope line that holds them back like cattle against barbed wire.

They’re here to catch a glimpse, possibly an autograph, maybe even a selfie with their Crimson Tide heroes.

Yes, they came to see the players, like Heisman Trophy runner-up Tua Tagovailoa, whose life-size cardboard cutout showed up well before the real quarterback Wednesday morning. The true icon, though, for a 13th straight year at Southeastern Conference media days, cuts a smaller image at 5 foot 6. He’s 67 with a newly fastened artificial hip but moves briskly through the clutter. The lizards crane their necks. They beg for Coach to sign their goods — footballs, helmets, jerseys, posters — some surely bound for eBay. Nick Saban is their living legend, here and in the flesh. Tan suit, white shirt, red tie. And he’s antsy.

“This is always about the time, you know, this week, when I … start shaking my leg again,” he said. “You know, my knee starts popping, that I’ve had just about enough of sitting around, relaxing, jumping in the lake, playing golf in the morning.”

Which means football season is just about here.

Clemson’s Dabo Swinney might currently rule college football’s Game of Thrones, but on this day, in this scene, just 44 miles away from Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Saban still reigns supreme. Right here, right now, 44-16 never seemed so far away.

That, of course, was the score in Clemson’s stunning victory over Saban’s Tide in last season’s College Football Playoff championship game. An Alabama team that some considered among the game’s best ever crumbled when it counted most. Saban hasn’t forgotten, and during his 30-minute session in the main media room Wednesday, he dropped plenty of hints why the Tide lost, some that will surely be interpreted as sore loser excuses, some that might simply explain the Tide’s no-show against Clemson in Santa Clara, Calif.

“If you’re a competitor,” Saban said, “you’re going to respond in a positive way and learn from the things that you didn’t do, whether those things were in preparation, game-day decisions, the habits that you created leading up to the game the second half of the season. … And we obviously didn’t do that. That’s my responsibility.”

It was the most lopsided loss in Saban’s time at Alabama — he’s won five national titles at Alabama and led the Tide to four straight national championship games — and to explain the Tide’s undoing, he ultimately fell on his own sword but saved some daggers for other nameless parties.

“Whether or not people were worried about personal outcomes more than team outcomes, it’s always hard to judge that,” Saban added. “But it seems like we had a lot of distractions at the end of the year.”

In a later interview Saban clarified that he was talking about assistant coaches, not necessarily players when it came to those “personal outcomes.” Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley left for the head-coaching job at Maryland, while defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi conveniently landed a job with the Cleveland Browns, part of a major staff shakeup. Saban has six new assistants this year.

The massive turnover prompted a reporter Wednesday to ask Saban if he’s difficult to work for.

“You know, they may say that, but then when (former assistants) get a job and they go do it, they do it exactly like we did it,” he said. “So, I don’t know.”

“You want to do it right,” Saban added, “or you want to make everybody happy?”

(Translation: Darn right, he’s hard to work for. And happy can be overrated.)

Either way, the Tide raised some red flags long before the Clemson game. They needed Jalen Hurts’ off-the-bench heroics to rally against Georgia in the SEC championship game. Alabama controlled most of the Orange Bowl playoff semifinal against Oklahoma but let the Sooners get within 11 points three times in the final 18 minutes. Against Clemson, the Tide looked uncommonly unprepared.

“Early in the season we were beating teams by a lot and, of course you’re going to get satisfied because you feel invincible as a team,” Tagovailoa said. “Never being satisfied is the way to go for us.”

More than six months later, Tagovailoa, whose Heisman campaign sputtered when his ankle gave out in the SEC championship game, has come to grips with the Clemson loss. (Maybe not the SEC, though. On page 51 of the conference media guide, Alabama’s 2018 record is mistakenly listed as 14-0. That will come as breaking news to folks in Clemson, S.C.)

“I know this sounds bad, but I’m glad I had that opportunity to feel a loss like that,” Tagovailoa said. “What can you learn from a win? You can’t learn as much. When you lose, you start appreciating things a lot more and definitely in a different perspective. I’m kind of glad we did (lose). There were many lessons to learn from that loss.”

For one, Tagovailoa said he took too many chances against Clemson instead of settling for the easier throws the defense yielded. Saban was more blunt.

“He’s going to try to make a great play every play,” he said. “Sometimes those things have worked out extremely well — and other times they’ve led to some disasters.”

Disaster aptly describes Alabama’s last outing, but the Tide return loaded for another playoff run, stockpiled with talent all over the place, especially on offense, where it’s easy to forget Tagovailoa threw for 43 touchdowns and posted the best single-season passer rating (199.4) in Division I history. He came here Wednesday along with Jerry Jeudy, possibly the country’s best wide receiver, and Dylan Moses, one of the game’s elite linebackers. Another 10 returning starters were back home in Tuscaloosa.

With the Clemson carnage still fresh, nobody’s crying for the Tide, especially in these parts where Saban still wears the crown.

Before Saban took the main stage Wednesday, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey reminded the room that the league’s oldest coach was back in the office 36 hours after hip surgery this offseason … with Clemson surely on his mind.

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Dave Matter is the Mizzou beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.