TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Tens of thousands of fans gathered to celebrate Alabama's latest national championship, one that was especially hard to achieve.
This time the Crimson Tide had to overcome a loss in the final regular-season game, a series of defensive injuries and a period of uncertainty when it wasn't clear if a fourth consecutive playoff invitation was even forthcoming.
Then there was the climactic title game with Georgia that included a 13-0 halftime deficit, a quarterback switch and an overtime that started with a huge sack of Tua Tagovailoa. The final play — Tagovailoa's 41-yard touchdown heave to fellow freshman DeVonta Smith — was etched in the memories of Tide fans, players and coach Nick Saban.
WHAT. A. GAME.— Alabama Football (@AlabamaFTBL) January 10, 2018
“Alabama Football Wins 2018 National Championship in Overtime Thriller”https://t.co/bdVKJMfdSO
"I don't think anybody's ever going to forget" that play, Saban told a crowd Alabama estimated at 40,000.
"I know I'll never forget the feeling that I had when Tua takes a sack and one minute later the feeling that I had when we threw the touchdown pass," he said.
It was the fifth, and perhaps most eventful, championship run of Saban's 11-year tenure at Alabama. He also matched Bear Bryant with his sixth overall national title.
After receiving a much-debated berth despite a loss to Auburn, Alabama toppled playoff nemesis and top-ranked Clemson in the Sugar Bowl before beating the Bulldogs 26-23 in an All-Southeastern Conference matchup. Second in the SEC West, first in the nation.
"This whole 2017 season, man, it's amazing," senior linebacker Rashaan Evans said.
Evans was so excited after the game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, he says he didn't take his pads off until returning to the hotel. It was at least the second title celebration for the seniors, and after a snow-filled week in much of the state, temperatures warmed up enough for a comfortable celebration.
Much warmer than the one two years ago.
"I've never seen this many fans at a celebration before," senior center Bradley Bozeman said. "It's unreal. We're really blessed to have this fan base."
Added Evans: "It's almost like a reunion, man. I remember the first time, it wasn't near as many people as it was (today). The fact that all of these fans came out, they took the time out of their day to come out here and just have fun with us, it means a lot."
Team captains Evans, Bozeman, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton spoke at the podium. Hamilton missed the past two playoffs because of knee injuries but savored another championship celebration.
"I'd probably say this one is sweeter just because of the way how we finished out," he said. "Nobody would have ever thought that after a sack and us being down, and boom, we come back with a haymaker in overtime. It makes the win that much sweeter."
SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey and College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock also were on hand.
This Alabama team is losing a number of key seniors plus five juniors leaving for the NFL draft, including Fitzpatrick, defensive tackle Da'Ron Payne, wide receiver Calvin Ridley, tailback Bo Scarbrough and safety Ronnie Harrison. The senior class won a record 53 games over four seasons against just five losses.
Saban ended his speech with a familiar message.
"For the seniors that are here on this team and the guys that will be leaving the team, my message after the game to them was, 'Use the lessons that you learned in this season to help you be more successful in life. They will serve you well because the things that you did were extremely special,'" he said. "And to the players that are coming back, get ready for the challenges of the future and let everybody know that we're not finished ..."
He paused to let fans and players complete the sentence: "Yet."