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The "never-ending" process begins anew in Tuscaloosa
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — For a fan base not always known for its sense of perspective, the Alabama faithful seem to be taking the events of the last four months well.
A-Day at Tuscaloosa was 140 days since Auburn ended Alabama’s bid to win four national titles in five years and 108 days since Oklahoma stunned the Crimson Tide for a 45-31 loss in the Sugar Bowl. For two losses that put a halt to national championship ambitions and temporarily derailed a dynasty, the topic isn't a total conversation-killer in the quad outside Bryant-Denny Stadium.
“We don’t think too much about it,” said Luke Kiszla, an Alabama junior from Mobile.
Kiszla’s friend at his tailgate, Jordan Yue, completed the thought.
“Not as much as we used to,” Yue said.
Inside the program, though, the 0-2 finish is inescapable. At the start of spring, Alabama coaches placed motivational posters throughout the locker room indicating the losses to Auburn and Oklahoma.
At the end of January, quarterback AJ McCarron pinpointed the problems that contributed to losses that ended the 2013 season. Complacency, McCarron said, was Alabama’s undoing long before the Auburn game, too many players who didn’t fully appreciate all it took to get to three national championships from 2009-12. No one rushed to dispute the assessment of Alabama's championship quarterback.
For most programs, spending every week of the season until December at No. 1 would be a major success. At Alabama, that wasn’t enough, especially given the stakes.
“From the Alabama fan perspective, they can’t wait until next season," said former Alabama quarterback Jay Barker, who led Tide to the 1994 championship and co-hosts the morning show on WJOX in Birmingham. “Everything that built to the three-peat boiled down to that Auburn game. Then you get to Oklahoma. You’ve got to finish stronger than last year. This is a team that had a chance to create history.”
For the optimist, even a disappointing finish in 2013 isn’t a bad development in the long run. The 2008 Alabama team had the national championship in its sights before a loss to Florida in the SEC title game and a flop in the bowl game.
“What the players need to understand is that it’s never-ending. The process is never-ending."
-Alabama coach Nick Saban
The Crimson Tide went 14-0 the next season and won the first national championship of the Saban era.
The veterans from that team, though, remembered going 7-6 in Saban’s first season, including a home loss to Louisiana-Monroe.
If Alabama is going to maintain its dynasty — rather than ending it — the issue won’t be talent as much as culture.
Alabama has finished first in the 247Sports Composite team rankings every signing day from 2009-14 and have the current No. 1 class for 2015. That figure does not include potential 2014 starting quarterback Jacob Coker, who will arrive in fall after a transfer from Florida State. But all that talent can't guarantee another championship.
“I think they got by on talent last season,” Barker said. “When it came to the Auburn game, it all caught up to them. All the things they didn’t do in the summer caught up to them.”
Now is the chance to atone for it. Saban said he’s been encouraged by the change in attitude during the spring, but responding when the coach is on the same practice field is one thing. Doing the same during summer conditioning or passing drills is another.
“What the players need to understand is that it’s never-ending,” Saban said. “The process is never-ending.
“One thing I like about this group, when you talk about it, they respond well. Last year, I felt we talked about some of the issues we had and we acknowledged them, but we didn’t really respond like you’d like.”
Alabama’s focus is two-fold. On the one hand, Saban needs his team to adopt the process-oriented culture. On the other, Saban needs credible leaders to replace McCarron and his counterpart on the other side of the ball, former linebacker C.J. Mosley.
On the defensive side, that may fall on senior linebacker Trey DePriest. The answers on the opposite side of the ball might not be clear until a quarterback is determined. Still, Alabama may have some of the best skill position talent in the country in running backs T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry and wide receiver Amari Cooper.
“We’re getting back to the basics, and when coach says something, we’ve got to be there to back him up,” DePriest said. “We’re there to tell (a young player) that he’s not hollering at you and trying to put you down. He’s trying to make you better.”
In many ways, this is a 11-2 top-10 team that’s in the process of starting over, including the eye-opening hire of controversial former Tennessee and USC coach Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator.
At least for some fans, they’ve responded. A hire that first garnered skepticism is now greeted with cautious optimism.
Alabama, after all, has made it this far with on the coaching approach by Saban.
“I don’t make $7 million a year to make those decisions,” Lolley said. “In Saban we trust.”