Alabama reloaded, set for another title run
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) -- The definition of a successful season for Alabama these days is no mystery.
Undefeated with a national championship.
Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban doesn't mind grand ambitions, but emphasizes his squad can't afford skipped steps or misdirected focus.
That's one reason tight end Michael Williams said that while anything less than a national title "is a failure," but that's the big picture.
"You can't think of it that way," Williams said. "Take it one game at a time."
Especially with the first game being Michigan in Arlington, Texas.
The Tide enters the season considered one of the championship front-runners, seeking to claim a third national title in four years and second straight. The veterans know from experience what a sense of entitlement and lack of focus can hurt even a loaded team (see Alabama, circa 2010).
Saban and a number of players with the voice of experience say this team doesn't suffer from the kind of overconfidence that led to a 10-3 disappointment two years ago. They've raved about the team's attitude and work ethic during the summer.
The words "defending national champion" might not be outlawed around the football offices, but they're not encouraged either.
"We've been around the coach so long, we won't do like that 2010 season," linebacker Nico Johnson said. "It pretty much taught us a lesson that we can't look forward."
A quick look back: The Tide has gone 48-6 over the last four seasons. In college football where the roster turnover is so high, Saban has imported a string of highly-rated recruiting classes. The Crimson Tide has avoided any major drop-off in talent at a program where 10 wins are a letdown.
The coach said this group probably fared better than any of his other teams on the preseason test that includes sprints and bench press. Saban has managed to apply his definition of success to his program: "Consistency in performance."
"Things don't happen by accident," he said. "You don't win a game by accident. You don't win a division by accident. You have to make it happen, and you have to make it happen by what you do every day."
Alabama must replace four first-round NFL draft picks before making another national title happen.
The defense lost an abundance of talent to the NFL, including All-America safety Mark Barron, Butkus Award semifinalist Courtney Upshaw and finalist Dont'a Hightower, along with both starting cornerbacks.
Johnson, C.J. Mosley and Trey DePriest are experienced linebackers and Adrian Hubbard is a strong pass rusher who could replace Upshaw. Cornerbacks Dee Milliner and John Fulton and sophomore safeties Vinnie Sunseri and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix also have experience.
"We lost some great players, but we're still Alabama," linebacker C.J. Mosley said. "We always recruit great players and we're going to have great players as backups and those guys have to step up and do their job."
The offense has fewer players to replace under new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who will operate a similar style to Jim McElwain.
Quarterback AJ McCarron doesn't have Doak Walker Award winner Trent Richardson to hand off to, or experienced wide receivers to target. Gone are Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks, who weren't stars but reliably played their roles.
Eddie Lacy is trying to keep the backfield bonanza going after averaging 7.1 yards on 95 carries last season, but sat out the spring recovering from surgery to repair a turf toe injury. Richardson was a Heisman Trophy finalist last season and Mark Ingram won in 2009. Both were first-round picks.
Lesser-known wideouts like Kevin Norwood, who had a career-best four catches for 78 yards in the national championship game, and Kenny Bell are joined by much-touted newcomers. McCarron is standing by his targets.
"The rest of the country might not know what they can do, but I know," said McCarron, who capped his first season as starter with MVP honors in the BCS championship game. "That's all that matters to me. It doesn't matter how many top 10 plays we get on ESPN. I know they're making plays for me.
"One of the proudest things for me is it's not only one of the most skillful groups of receivers we've had since I've been here, but they're really good off the field. They're all levelheaded guys."
Two of Alabama's most recognizable players are now anchoring the middle of the front lines. Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones moved from left tackle to center, filling the lone vacancy on the line and making way for sophomore Cyrus Kouandjio.
Jones, guard Chance Warmack and right tackle D.J. Fluker are all first-team preseason All-Southeastern Conference picks.
Jesse Williams, who bench-pressed 600 pounds over the summer, is the noseguard after starting every game at defensive end last season.
The Tide players hardly seem worried after the talent exodus.
"We're going to have a great defense," defensive end Damion Square said. "That's why we recruit every year. Everybody talks about all the players that we lost, but we recruited those guys, too, to replace some other great players that played at the University of Alabama. Rashad Johnson, Javier Arenas, Rolando McClain, just to name a few.
"We recruited some more guys that can compete at a high level early."