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August 24, 2010

Can 'Bama win back-to-back national titles?

Southern hospitality ain't always what it's cracked up to be.

Just ask any visitor to Alabama's Bryant-Denny Stadium on a Saturday afternoon in the fall. Sixty minutes of getting chased, pounded and run over on the field is bad enough. But then the Crimson Tide masses that equate even a last-second victory to a lopsided rout are eager to add insult to injury.

"Hey (insert opponent here)! We just beat the hell out of you!"

That "Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer" taunt ... er, cheer raises hair on the necks of Alabama's victims like nails screeching down a chalk board. It's rude. It's disrespectful. Or as a refined Southerner might say, "It's just not proper."

Yet, there is only one way to silence it, and that hasn't happened lately.

Beat Alabama? You'd have a better chance of buying a Houndstooth hat in Knoxville or Baton Rouge.

Last season, the Crimson Tide won their -- what? -- 50th national title in a perfect season that was closed out with double-digit victories over Florida and Texas. Now that coach Nick Saban's program is in full swing and the roster is stocked with elite prospects, the Tide may never ebb again. Surely, Alabama will become the first program to win consecutive BCS national titles.

"We have good chemistry, a positive attitude and people that are responsible and accountable," Saban said after the completion of spring drills. "Everybody is willing to work and invest in themselves to be the best players they can be because they're going to be judged on what they do [this] year."

Nobody is going to deny Alabama. At least, that's the way the Saban worshippers see it. After all, Heisman-winning tailback Mark Ingram is back for another season. So are quarterback Greg McElroy and big-play wide receiver Julio Jones. Ornery linebacker Dont'a Hightower and pulverizing end Marcell Dareus (if he's cleared to play by the NCAA) will lead the defense.

And Saban is overseeing it all.

What team can take the national crown away from Alabama?

Ohio State? Has everyone forgotten the Buckeyes have lost eight in a row to SEC teams?

Oregon? The Ducks' star quarterback, Jeremiah Masoli, has been dismissed.

USC? Pete Carroll is in the NFL now.

Boise State? Remember the last time a WAC team faced an SEC team in a major bowl? Georgia 41, Hawaii 10.

Texas? The Longhorns have a new quarterback.

Then again, nobody was supposed to prevent Florida State from defending its 1999 national title -- that is, until the Seminoles couldn't solve Oklahoma's defense and lost the 2000 BCS title game, 13-2.

Miami, with 10 eventual first-round draft picks on its 2002 roster, figured to win back-to-back championships. But official Terry Porter's pass-interference call and Ohio State's Maurice Clarett thwarted that.

In 2005, USC, with two Heisman winners in its lineup, was hailed as perhaps the best team in history. That was until Texas quarterback Vince Young denied the Trojans consecutive national championships.

And, believe it or not, Alabama is vulnerable.

The defense must be rebuilt after the departure of nine starters. The offensive line lost two starters, including its best player. The special teams suffered huge losses -- the kicker, punter and star return man. Complacency could set in after a championship year. Team chemistry may not be the same. Heck, even a quirk in the Southeastern Conference schedule is working against Alabama.

Keep in mind that last season, Alabama fans from Huntsville to Mobile were holding their collective breaths until a blocked field goal enabled the Tide to escape with a 12-10 victory over Tennessee. There were come-from-behind victories over Auburn and LSU. And is it absolutely certain Alabama would have won the national title if Texas quarterback Colt McCoy hadn't been injured early in the first quarter? A slip in any of those games could have denied Alabama the national championship.

Six of those nine departed defensive starters were taken in the NFL draft, including two in the first round. While former four- and five-star prospects are stepping into the starting lineup, there is no guarantee they will perform to the same level as their predecessors. Ask USC, which lost eight defensive starters after the 2008 season, how that works out. The Trojans went from 12 victories to nine.

Can it really be taken for granted that a couple of seldom-used sophomore cornerbacks, albeit with vast potential, will play as well as Kareem Jackson, a first-round draft choice, and Javier Arenas, an All-America selection? Will replacements for defensive tackle Terrence Cody or All-America linebacker Rolando McClain, a first-round pick, be equally disruptive forces? Will the next kicker be as reliable as the graduated Leigh Tiffin, who made 30 field goals last season? Will the next punt returner be as explosive as Arenas, who ranked fourth in the nation with a 15.4-yard average?

As soon as the '09 season ended, Saban began reminding his team that another challenger always is emerging. A team that wasn't a championship contender last season could become a threat this season. He warned his players to beware of becoming complacent.

Winning a championship is difficult. Repeating is much harder. Saban learned that while coaching LSU earlier in the decade. The Tigers under Saban won a national championship in 2003, but they fell to 9-3 in '04.

"The hard part is not repeating," Saban said. "It's staying focused on what you have to do to play your best football."

His players say they got the message.

"We realize we can be every bit as successful as we were last year or every bit as unsuccessful as we were in '07 [7-6 in Saban's first season in Tuscaloosa] without strong leadership," McElroy said. "We have to understand how difficult the climb was to get to the pinnacle. We understand what we have to do."

'SEC, SEC, SEC'

The first thing Alabama has to do to continue its reign is win the SEC again. The more enthusiastic SEC advocates boast that winning the conference crown is merely a precursor to winning the national title.

They have a point.

The SEC clearly is the most powerful among the 11 FBS conferences. Its conference champion has gone on to win the BCS national title in each of the past four seasons. Furthermore, the SEC team won each of those games by at least 10 points.

Since the creation of the BCS in time for the 1998 season, four SEC teams -- Alabama, Florida, LSU and Tennessee -- have won five national championships. The Big 12 is the only other conference to produce multiple national championship teams -- Oklahoma and Texas. Ironically, those teams also are the latest to fall to SEC opponents in the BCS title game.

So, in SEC territory, which stretches from Louisiana and Arkansas in the west to Florida in the east and northward to Kentucky, the SEC and national championship games now are viewed like third base and home plate in a home-run trot.

The obvious question, then: Can this season's Crimson Tide, with sweeping personnel changes on defense and special teams, again prove their superiority over SEC rivals?

"The great thing in the SEC is there are a lot of great teams. It's a very, very competitive league," Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. "I promise you everybody is going to be shooting to knock them off. This year, everybody is going to be gunning for them."

They may not have enough ammunition, though. This season, the traditional SEC powers may not be as powerful as usual. They may be unable to take advantage of any possible Alabama shortcomings. They may be unable to take advantage of a schedule that allows six conference opponents an open week before they face the Crimson Tide.

In the East Division, the Tim Tebow era is over at Florida, which also lost its top three receivers and had five defensive players taken in the NFL draft. Tennessee has issues at quarterback and is rebuilding its defense and its offensive line. Georgia will start a redshirt freshman quarterback and also is rebuilding on defense. South Carolina looks to have the needed talent to have a good season, but when is the last time the Gamecocks didn't underachieve?

In the West, LSU has to bolster its lines, rev up its rushing attack and hope for growth from quarterback Jordan Jefferson. Auburn is counting on a junior college transfer at quarterback and has to replace leading rusher Ben Tate. Ole Miss has to overhaul its offense. Arkansas has no defense.

"Every year is a new year," said South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, whose Gamecocks face Alabama on Oct. 9. "Alabama lost a bunch of players defensively, but they're loaded. What you hope when you're us is that we can find 35 to 40 players that can match their 85. They have more [elite players] than us, but they can only play 11 at a time."

Whether the SEC is facing a "down" season is subject for debate. But the general feeling in Tuscaloosa seems to be that it doesn't really matter.

"Last year we were good, but I think this year we can be better," said Ingram, who rushed for 1,658 yards as a sophomore last season. "We have a lot of talent all over the field, young guys that are hungry trying to prove themselves and older players that know what they are doing and what it takes to win.

"I think once we mesh all that together, we should be all right."

Any team with Ingram will be OK. A powerful inside runner with breakaway speed, Ingram was at his best in most of Alabama's biggest games. He ran for 100 yards against the likes of Virginia Tech, LSU, Florida and Texas.

Yet there is a large contingent in Alabama that swear Ingram is merely the Tide's second-best running back. Sophomore Trent Richardson is a big play waiting to happen. In his debut season, Richardson gained 751 yards in a backup role despite never getting as many as 20 carries in a game. He scored two touchdowns against Texas, including one on a 49-yard burst.

The receiving trio of Jones, Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks is a good one. Graduated tight end Colin Peek must be replaced, but 6-foot-6, 266-pound Michael Williams is waiting to show what he can do.

McElroy is a proven winner and an effective game manager. In his first season as the starter, he completed better than 60 percent of his passes for 2,508 yards while throwing 17 touchdown passes and only four interceptions. He figures to be better in 2010 with a year of experience.

Indeed, the only area of concern on the offense is the line. Although three starters return up front, consensus All-America guard Mike Johnson isn't among them. He was selected by Atlanta in the third round of the NFL draft.

And then there are the defensive questions.

McElroy knows what it's like to be doubted. As a first-year starter, he was widely seen as the weak link in Alabama's offense last season. Yet he had a solid year, largely avoided mistakes and made big plays at just the right time. For example, he completed three consecutive third-down passes, the last for a touchdown, in a clutch final drive to eke out a 26-21 victory over Auburn.

McElroy acknowledged that the questions about the defense are valid. But he faced those new starters every day in spring practice and came away encouraged that the Tide are indeed building for another championship run.

"The questions about the defense are absolutely warranted because we have a lot of unproven talent stepping in," he said. "But we've recruited well and we have guys that are ready. It's like the offense last year. We had been waiting in the wings and biding our time until we got our opportunity. The guys on defense have been doing the same thing. I feel strongly that we'll be very successful on the defensive side. There is not as much experience, but we're every bit as talented from top to bottom.

"We have tremendous speed from defensive end to the safeties and cornerbacks and linebackers. The question is will they have the same savvy and understanding. We're not sure. They have to live up to that."

Alabama's greatest asset

There is speed and talent on defense. The quarterback has experience and is a good manager. The receivers are explosive and the tailback duo might be the best in the country.

Still, Alabama's greatest asset is Saban, who quickly is earning Bear Bryant-like adulation in the state. He's even outdone the legendary Bear in one respect: Bryant took over a struggling Alabama program in 1957 and four years later won a national championship. Saban took over a struggling program in 2006 and brought home a national championship three years later.

Love him or hate him, there is no denying Saban is one of the best coaches in the nation and on the way to establishing himself as among the best in college football history.

As coach at Michigan State, he led the Spartans to a 10-2 finish in 1999, only the second 10-win season in school history. At LSU, he took over an underachieving program -- one that had managed just three winning records in the previous 11 seasons -- and guided the Tigers to a national championship in his fourth season in Baton Rouge.

Alabama had managed six wins or fewer in three of four seasons from 2003-06. That prompted Alabama officials to offer a $4 million annual salary to lure Saban away from the NFL's Miami Dolphins. Two years later, the Tide finished 12-2. Last season, he led Alabama to its first national title since 1992.

He's already the only FBS coach to win national championships at two programs.

Saban is a perfectionist who demands his players not only excel but also dominate, and he's adept at pushing the right buttons and pulling the right strings.

"Last year, this team was the best in the country," McElroy said. "This year's team we don't know about, but we can all improve day in and day out. If we listen to Coach Saban, he'll put us in the right position to be successful."

Even with the rebuilt defense and the special teams changes, Saban will make sure Alabama won't easily be beaten. That puts the burden on opponents to somehow find a way to beat the Crimson Tide.

If they can't, they certainly will hear about it.

"Hey (insert opponent here)! We just beat the hell out of you!"

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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