TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The transformation from average to elite took only two seasons under Nick Saban.
From 7-6 in 2007 to 12-2 in ’08, the well-traveled coach had Alabama within reach of competing for a national championship two seasons after taking over for Mike Shula.
Back-to-back top-ranked recruiting classes left plenty of talent stocked in the cupboard in Tuscaloosa. Now there is something lingering that has been missing for several years — expectations.
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A consensus top-10 team in preseason rankings, this Alabama team will not sneak up on the SEC as it did a season ago. It will also be without three-fifths of a dominant offensive line, a three-year starting quarterback and the 2008 leading rusher.
The 2009 campaign, however, will begin in a familiar place. The Tide will return to the Georgia Dome, where a surprisingly easy win over highly-ranked Clemson jump-started the perfect regular season and marked the beginning of the end for Tigers coach Tommy Bowden.
Another top-10 team from the ACC will be waiting in Atlanta this Labor Day weekend. Defending conference champion Virginia Tech will test how far the new Alabama starters progressed in the month since preseason practice opened.
“I’m concerned about each opponent that we play one game at a time,” coach Nick Saban said. “Virginia Tech has a very, very good team. I think that regardless of who you open with, you’re always concerned about anybody that has to play in that game that doesn’t have a lot of experience, and I would say that probably gets magnified a little bit at the quarterback position, although I think Greg (McElroy) has done a very good job throughout not only this camp, but also in the spring.”
A rejuvenated Southeastern Conference West Division will be waiting after two more non-conference games. Ole Miss has turned into a trendy pick to win the West, and LSU appears to be resetting following a rare season of mediocrity.
A trip to Oxford on Oct. 10 will go a long way toward deciding the division champion as the Rebels return the bulk of a 9-4 team that rolled over Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl.
LSU will travel to Bryant-Denny Stadium nearly a month later following home games with South Carolina and Tennessee.
Should Alabama be in contention for another return trip to Atlanta for the SEC championship game, it will have to resolve a few issues that stood out entering practice.
The most glaring weakness comes on the offensive line. Without three starters, two who were picked in the first three rounds of the NFL draft, fresh faces will be looked upon to protect first-year quarterback McElroy.
Virginia Tech’s notoriously aggressive and powerful defense will provide an early test of the new-look front line that will include returning starters Mike Johnson and Drew Davis.
If he has the time to throw, McElroy will have plenty of targets looking for the ball. The three-year backup said he’s seeing several new faces stepping into big roles among wide receivers this year.
That extra depth will take pressure off All-American Julio Jones, who will be healthy entering his sophomore season. Although he didn’t miss a game, Jones suffered multiple injuries in 2008, including a sports hernia in the fifth game of the season.
Health issues were never a major issue for Alabama last season. However, seasons like that are rare, so developing depth at every position has been a particular goal Saban has referenced several times in August.
The several candidates for starting jobs on the offensive line have spent time at multiple positions, creating diversity and the ability to fit a spare part if one were to break along the way.
Overall, the strategy has not changed within the Alabama football program.
It isn’t about to shed its philosophy and try something new, such as the spread offense.
With Saban, it’s all about lining up and out-manning the opposition.
“One of the things that I would like to see more of on our team is our team has affirmations that they’ve talked about that are things they want to accomplish,” Saban said, “And it doesn’t come down to how many games we’re going to win, but things that they want to do: Be a physical team, dominate the other team, not be a team that anybody wants to play against, be accountable, be disciplined, be able to finish, a lot of those types of things.”