Alabama back on top of playoff picture, motivated by a bad memory, and that spells trouble for everyone else

There seems to be a chip on Alabama’s shoulder these days — and maybe that should worry the rest of college football.

It’s not only that the most dominant program in the nation over the past decade has reclaimed the No. 1 spot in the College Football Playoff rankings. The Crimson Tide also has some motivation stemming from last season’s loss to Clemson in the national championship game. As senior defensive back Anthony Averett put it: “We’re all about finishing this year.”

Hunger for revenge has pushed Averett and his teammates through a string of injuries on defense and last week’s close call at No. 16 Mississippi State. It has helped them remain undefeated in a season roiled by all sorts of madness.

Another weekend of upsets forced the CFP selection committee to reshuffle the deck yet again Tuesday, knocking Georgia and Notre Dame out of the top four, down to No. 7 and No. 8.

The latest ranking has Alabama followed by No. 2 Clemson, No. 3 Miami and No. 4 Oklahoma.

“Many teams remain very close throughout the rankings,” Kirby Hocutt, chairman of the selection committee, said in a statement. “Head-to-head victories among comparable teams, results against common opponents and strength of schedule remain important points of differentiation for many teams.”

Alabama started the season atop the Associated Press media poll and has remained there for about three months. But when the CFP experts convened for the first time last month, they relegated the Crimson Tide to No. 2 on the list that determines which four teams make the playoff.

Given the instability in college football this fall, it took only a couple of weeks for things to change.

Coach Urban Meyer, who has watched his Ohio State team yo-yo for the past two months, isn’t surprised that so much has been in flux.

“Every year I’ve been involved in college football, there’s like what? What happened?” he told reporters. “And it’s the nature of the beast.”

Oklahoma knows both sides of the equation, losing to Iowa State in early October and then rebounding.

“I feel like we’re a little more equipped to handle it because it’s almost like we’ve been through the cycle,” Coach Lincoln Riley said.

Resiliency has become the mantra for a number of one- and two-loss teams in the playoff hunt.

After Notre Dame’s blowout defeat at Miami, Coach Brian Kelly talked to his players about No. 11 USC, which has won three in a row since falling to the Irish.

“It’s really how you respond in college athletics,” Kelly said.

Though Alabama hasn’t needed to recover from defeat, this this fall has presented other challenges for a team picked to return to the championship game for a third consecutive season. Especially troublesome are injuries to four linebackers that have thinned the Crimson Tide’s front seven.

It is a testament to the program’s depth that the defense still ranks second in the nation, surrendering 252 yards a game. And sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts has guided an efficient, run-heavy attack that averages 474 yards.

“We’ve had adversity throughout the season,” offensive lineman Jonah Williams said, adding: “I think being able to respond to that is a big part of the character we have here as an offense.”

The Crimson Tide should get a break against Mercer on Saturday but must win the regular-season finale against No. 6 Auburn to qualify for the Southeastern Conference championship game.

Coach Nick Saban has challenged his players, asking them: “Can you thrive on ‘hard’?”

Last weekend, playing on the road in the cowbell din of Starkville, Miss., the defense made a late stop, giving Hurts the chance to mount a 68-yard drive in the final minute. His 26-yard pass to DeVonta Smith with 25 seconds remaining secured a come-from-behind, 31-24 victory over Mississippi State.

Afterward, Hurts and Averett both mentioned the title game last season, when they held a fourth-quarter lead until Clemson scored the winning touchdown with one second left.

Their coach can understand if that memory persists.

“A lot on the line. You work all year long to try to put yourself in that position and you come up a little short,” Saban said. “I think that’s something that you never forget.”

At least not until the Crimson Tide get another shot at the title.

david.wharton@latimes.com

Follow @LAtimesWharton on Twitter

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