With the highest stakes in college football on the line, it all came down to this moment. Fans of The University of Alabama’s football team anticipated the upcoming play with very little optimism after witnessing the previous devastating play. Some were standing and some were sitting. Some were yelling and some were silent. All were trying to find a way to properly prepare themselves for a play that would go down in history.
With the ball snapped, the quarterback knew exactly where he was going with this pass. Making room to deliver the throw, the quarterback winded back and delivered the final pass into the air. With the ball in flight, fans realized the final destination of the pass: an open wide receiver for a guaranteed touchdown. Once the ball landed in the receivers hand and was tucked away, Alabama Crimson Tide fans reacted in opposite ways: celebration, frustration, and tears of joy and mourning. How could have this been possible?
It happened twice.
Coming in as a freshman in the fall of 2016, expectations were as high after winning the national championship the previous year. Ross Thompson, a current sophomore in the Honors College from Birmingham, voiced this expectation and viewed it as a reasonable stance.
“Growing up as an Alabama fan my whole life, the Saban era has made you think that we should win the national championship every year,” Thompson said.
He was not the only person to have similar expectations. Hudson Nuckolls, a current sophomore from Nashville majoring in public relations, possessed the same viewpoint.
“Coming in, I felt that we were definitely the favorites to win it all with the great defense we had returning,” Nuckolls said.
These two freshmen at the time, who knew nothing of each other, shared the same belief that eventually brought them together. For the rematch of last year’s national championship, the two classmates found themselves both at a mutual friend’s dorm room within the Lakeside residential living.
“To be honest, I had no clue who Ross was at that point,” Nuckolls said. “I was just excited to be with Alabama students and friends for the game.”
During this time, Caneel VanNostrand, a sophomore majoring in marketing, psychology and economics, was in Tampa, Florida for the national championship game her freshman year. VanNostrand is a part of the Million Dollar Band as a member of Color Guard and traveled with the crew a few days before the game for the pre-national championship festivities, like going to Busch Gardens and performing at a pep rally on the beach.
Heading into the game, Ross Thompson felt confident in the team’s chances, given that “we were undefeated going into National Championships.”
“I didn’t even consider [losing] as a possibility,” Nuckolls said. “I was spoiled up to that point. I didn’t really think we ever lost before, this is all I had ever known.”
During the rematch of the national championship between Alabama and Clemson, before the large let down occurred, Alabama fans across the nation had their spirits lifted by a go-ahead touchdown by freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts on a 30-yard rush with two minutes and seven seconds remaining in the game.
“I remember everyone freaking out, jumping around and hugging,” VanNostrand said as she recalled the experience while being in Raymond James Stadium.
Meanwhile, the lifelong Alabama football fan, Thompson, could not enjoy the moment. “We left them (Clemson) too much time [to comeback],” Thompson said.
Thompson’s concerns were valid, and with just one second left, Deshaun Watson completed the pass to Hunter Renfrow for the game-winning touchdown. Once the game ended, Nuckolls and Thompson quickly left the Lakeside dorm in silence.
“I slowly trotted back to Ridgecrest South and took the steps, not the elevator,” Nuckolls said. “And then I just layed on the couch and fell asleep .”
VonNostrand, after the devastating loss, took a long bus ride home with The Million Dollar Band the day after the devastating game.
“Getting back to campus, there was no discussion of the loss,” VanNostrand said. “People tried not to say anything, which I appreciated I guess.”
Fast forward 11 months and you’ll find these three students wrapping up their third semester at The University of Alabama while anxiously waiting to find out if their favorite college football team will earn a fourth consecutive entrance into the College Football Playoff.
Nuckolls and Thompson, who have become good friends since the unfortunate loss to Clemson the previous season, waited with anticipation after attending the Sunday church service at Calvary Baptist. As these two friends were on the edge of their seat, VanNostrand practiced with her winter guard teammates in preparation for upcoming competitions, yet her mind focused on the college football playoff committee’s upcoming decision.
“It was tough to be focused on practice when the fate of our season was going to be announced at any moment,” said VanNostrand.
After approximately 30 minutes of heated discussion among the analysts on ESPN, Rece Davis announced that The University of Alabama had been selected as the fourth team in the College Football Playoff.
“I remember I was sitting in a chair, then the news broke,” Thompson recalled. “And then when I stood up, I actually got light headed because I was screaming so loud. I was honestly more excited at that moment then when we won the national championship that year.”
After a redemptive victory against the Clemson Tigers in New Orleans, the next step was to take on the Georgia Bulldogs in Atlanta.
“I couldn’t wait to watch the game with all of my friends,” Nuckolls said.
Nuckolls and Thompson, just like the year before, watched the game together with several other friends in Tuscaloosa. Meanwhile, just like the year before, VanNostrand attended the game as a member of the Million Dollar Band.
Incredibly enough, this game somehow possessed more drama than the year before. After a rough first half for the Crimson Tide faithful, backup quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was called upon to steer the ship in the right direction. VanNostrand was very excited about the change, especially since she had been pulling for him ever since she saw his highlight tapes from high school.
However, despite the incredible comeback, Alabama had the opportunity to seal the win with a 36-yard field goal, but the attempt was hooked and missed wide left.
“We did everything right. However, knowing our history of field goal kickers, it was bound not to be good,” Thompson said. “So I did not have much confidence at all going into the overtime period.7”
After three points were scored by the Georgia Bulldogs, the Alabama Crimson Tide had a horrendous start with Tagovailoa taking a 16-yard sack to begin the offensive possession in overtime. When this occurred, VanNostrand took a seat, fearful that Alabama’s fate may have been put on the wrong side of history two years in a row.
“[I] thought everything that Tua had done was really good, but he had erased everything he had done with that sack.” Thompson said.
Thankfully, that was not the final play.
On the next play, Tagovailoa nailed an open DeVonta Smith for a walk-off touchdown, earning the Alabama Crimson Tide their 17th national championship.
Immediately after the play, celebration erupted. Screams, hugs, and more screams.
“All the controversy between Jalen and Tua was gone because we won,” Thompson said.
Soon thereafter, Nuckolls, Thompson and their other friends quickly went to celebrate with the rest of the student body at The Strip near campus, as well as Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Meanwhile, VanNostrand and the rest of the band were granted permission to go onto the field after the trophy ceremony to bask in both the confetti and the victory. “Some kids had prepared and brought gallon ziploc bags to put the confetti in,” VanNostrand said.
She made sure to gather as much confetti as possible into her bag.
A few days later, the reality of being national champions still had not settled in. Many people, like Thompson, rewatched the game three or four times that week in disbelief that it had occurred. VanNostrand made sure to make the confetti memorable by putting the celebratory pieces of paper into clear ornaments to give as presents to friends and family. There were also others like Nuckolls, who took the Saban approach and began their focus on the offseason and the upcoming football season.
Regardless of how you celebrated the victory, all Alabama fans can agree that after the heart-wrenching moments of losing in the waning moments to Clemson the previous year, made the celebration all the more memorable.
“In the end,” VanNostrand noted, “the victory was that much sweeter.”