TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama's national championship dreams were crushed, and only a matchup with an unbeaten team from a more lightly regarded conference awaited.
The current scenario is completely different from what the Crimson Tide faced in last season's Sugar Bowl against Utah. No crushing disappointment or crippling suspensions (so far). And no watching the BCS national title game on TV.
The top-ranked Tide (13-0) is hoping for a much better showing against No. 2 Texas (13-0) on Jan. 7 in Pasadena, Calif. They at least have a terrific example of how not to handle a BCS game.
"I think it's something a lot of guys weren't used to," linebacker Cory Reamer said. "We had a lot of success last year, so there were a lot of people around here that were trying to be distractions. Then they got some of their teammates caught up in that. I think we're a little more prepared now."
Alabama was facing a 21-0 hole before the first quarter ended against the Utes of the Mountain West Conference. Outland Trophy-winning left tackle Andre Smith was suspended on game week for dealings with an agent, and successor Mike Johnson -- normally the starting left guard -- went down early with an ankle injury.
Then the Utes had a field day against the makeshift line, sacking John Parker Wilson eight times and picking off two of his passes. The result was a 31-17 loss to a team that seemed to draw motivation from not getting a national title shot rather than letting it be a downer.
After the game, coach Nick Saban said: "Players are going to have to make a different kind of commitment because they can't be satisfied."
Now, he's hoping the loss was a painful lesson learned along the way.
"I think that every experience that you have should be a learning experience," Saban said. "I think the motivation is a little bit different, so therefore I hope the passion should be a little bit different.
"I think all the experiences we've had to this point, good and bad, should reinforce what we are trying to build in terms of character and attitude and what it takes to be successful at a championship level," he said.
This Tide team has already gone a step beyond what last year's group accomplished, dominating a Florida team in the Southeastern Conference championship game that handed 'Bama its first loss in 2008.
Cornerback Javier Arenas isn't so sure Alabama needs to draw much from that game in New Orleans.
"I think that's too far in the past," Arenas said. "We've got a lot of confidence coming into the game. But we haven't accomplished anything like this before, and we still have something to accomplish. We're not thinking back to New Orleans, but we do know how we got in that position and lost that game. We have that advantage on our side."
A year older, maybe a year wiser.
That Alabama squad was beset with potential distractions. Smith and tailback Glen Coffee both decided to skip their senior seasons to enter the NFL draft, and the big lineman became the program's first player taken in the first round since 2000. But Smith was suspended four days before the game.
"We had a lot of guys that were potential first-round, second-round guys, we had a lot of guys that were going to be drafted so there were agents everywhere that really weren't interested in what our best interest was," Reamer said. "They were worried about themselves. We've got a plan now where we can handle it as players. We don't have a lot of outside people influencing what their ideas should be.
"Hopefully everybody abides by the rules we have set on dealing with those kind of people so they aren't a distraction to everybody," Reamer added.
This team isn't without potential distractions. Tailback Mark Ingram won the Heisman. All-America linebacker Rolando McClain is a likely first-round draft pick if he opts to skip his senior season. Cornerback Kareem Jackson also submitted paperwork to have his stock evaluated.
Reamer said the team is better prepared to cope with such matters.
"We know how to handle it," he said.
The stakes are much higher, too. Alabama is seeking its first national title since 1992.
"It's the biggest game that any of us have ever played in," Johnson, a first-team All-American, said. "Last year after the SEC championship game, it was kind of a letdown. People were kind of dragging through the Sugar Bowl.
"We weren't really playing for anything except the Sugar Bowl title," he said. "This year we have so much more to play for."