TAMPA — They sat at their lockers, seemingly more stunned than sad, more shocked than upset.
They exchanged long hugs, but very few words. They shook their heads, but shed very few tears.
They stared at walls. Stared at floors. Stared at nothing.
Like the rest of us, the players of the Alabama Crimson Tide surely must have been wondering:
Did this really happen?
We're floored at what we saw. Even years from now, we'll look back and still be amazed how it happened, that it even happened at all.
This was the best team in college football. Perhaps the most dominant team in the greatest dynasty in the history of the sports. With, absolutely, the greatest coach of his era and maybe of any era.
This team is built for moments like these. This team is built for games like this.
So, we will wonder forever, how did this team for the ages cough up a two-touchdown lead in the one game it was meant to win? How did it blow a fourth-quarter lead? How did it lose with one second left? How did it let this one get away?
Dare we even think it? How in the world did almighty Alabama choke away a national title?
"One game doesn't define a team," Alabama coach Nick Saban said after the Crimson Tide's 35-31 loss to Clemson early Tuesday morning in the College Football Playoff championship game at Raymond James Stadium. "I think our team demonstrated time and time again this year that they were winners."
Still, this Alabama season won't be remembered for 14 victories, no matter how impressive those 14 victories were. It won't be remembered for continuing a tradition that every program in the country craves. Alabama will, instead, be haunted by the final game.
It will be haunted by one second.
That's what separated Alabama from what would have been a fifth national title in eight years — a number that could have entrenched the Crimson Tide as, perhaps, the greatest dynasty the sport has even seen.
"I think every loss is painful," Saban said. "And my loss is really for the bad feeling that I have for the players who have worked so hard to create this opportunity for themselves and not to be able to finish this is very disappointing for me."
But how did it happen? How did Alabama come up short? How did a championship that seemed preordained end up being celebrated in the other locker room?
While the final nail of Alabama's coffin was driven in with one second left, the loss came over the previous 59 minutes and 59 seconds when Alabama's true freshman quarterback spent large chunks of the night looking like a true freshman quarterback. That shouldn't have been all that shocking, especially after Jalen Hurts' uneven performance in the semifinals against Washington.
What was surprising was a vaunted defense that cracked and simply couldn't hold off Clemson's sensational quarterback Deshaun Watson in a fourth quarter that will go down in college football lore.
"It was a full 60-minute game and we knew that going into this game, it was going to be that," Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen said. "(Watson) made the plays when they needed and we didn't, so you've got to give Clemson the credit. They won the game."
Still, it will be hard for Alabama to remember this as a Clemson victory rather than a Tide loss. 'Bama led 14-0 less than two minutes into the second quarter. It had a 24-14 lead after three quarters. It had leads of 28-24 and 31-28 in the fourth quarter.
The best defense in the nation couldn't hold on.
"We just didn't make a play when we needed to," Saban said. "We needed to get a sack. We needed to get a takeaway. We needed to get a stop in the red zone, and they made the plays and we didn't."
Don't let the offense off the hook. Despite scoring 31 points, the offense had chances to put the game away throughout the first three quarters. Its one-dimensional attack allowed Clemson to hang around long enough for Watson to shift into high gear in the fourth quarter.
Hurts finished a pedestrian 13-for-31 for 131 yards — and 68 yards came on a busted-coverage touchdown pass to O.J. Howard. Take that away, and Hurts was 12 of 31 for 63 yards.
The Tide was a putrid 2-for-15 on third downs.
Roll Tide? Hardly.
Keep punting the ball back to Clemson and, eventually, even a great defense is going to break.
And a great team is finally going to crack.
Clemson is a deserving champ. It played hard, didn't quit and, for all the fussing about who should have been in the playoffs, it clearly was the only program capable of toppling mighty Alabama.
But this special night will long be remembered as much for the team that lost as the team that won. For all its accomplishments, Alabama leaves Tampa with a permanent scar.
The one that got away.
Contact Tom Jones at [email protected] Follow @tomwjones.