NEW ORLEANS — It wasn’t supposed to happen this fast.
Sure, there were signs that Nick Saban had Alabama on its way back, with the bigtime recruits making their way into the fold giving hope for a bright future and a fan base adopting the attitude that it was just a matter of time.
Turns out those newcomers provided the few missing pieces to the Crimson Tide’s roster. The result was a 12-0 regular season and more than a month spent atop the national rankings, before the dream season crumbled with losses to Florida in the Southeastern Conference championship game and No. 7 Utah in the Sugar Bowl, 31-17 Friday night.
Alabama still went from 7-6 to 12-2, the most dramatic improvement for a coach’s second year in school history. Senior center Antoine Caldwell figures the 2008 group should be remembered as “the team that kind of turned the corner for Alabama.”
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The Tide’s loss to the Utes showed maybe Saban & Co. haven’t arrived just yet as worthy national title contenders, the kind of team with not just a strong starting group but the depth to overcome key losses. Alabama navigated the season with no costly injuries or significant off-the-field issues until the end.
Star left tackle Andre Smith was suspended for the Sugar Bowl for alleged dealings with an agent and replacement Mike Johnson — normally a starting guard — exited early with a right ankle injury and didn’t come back.
That thrust freshman tackle John Michael Boswell and sophomore David Ross into the fire.
Alabama wound up yielding eight sacks and managing just 31 yards rushing.
“We’re still building quality depth on our team,” Saban said.
The Tide also fell 31-20 to the Gators in the SEC title game with a shot at the BCS national championship on the line. It was still marked progress for a team that had hovered around .500 the previous two seasons.
“I think we have kind of turned things around from the first few years I was here,” senior quarterback John Parker Wilson said. “I think we changed the attitude, the mentality of the team, that we can go out there and play with everybody.”
The Tide offered an indication with a 34-10 thrashing of preseason Top 10 team Clemson in the opener. Bama gave the regular season a nice bookend with a 36-0 win over Auburn to end a six-year losing streak in the rivalry.
Junior nose guard Terrence Cody figures the coaches will make sure he and his teammates remember the final two games during the offseason.
“When we’re running and doing all our workouts they’re probably going to hang these losses up to make us work harder,” the All-America junior college transfer said. “Two losses in a row and a loss in the Sugar Bowl to Utah is kind of upsetting.”
The Tide had only nine scholarship seniors, but the losses will be significant for next season. Gone are three-year starting quarterback Wilson, All-America center Antoine Caldwell and All-America safety Rashad Johnson.
Plus, All-SEC tailback Glen Coffee and the Outland Trophy-winning Smith were exploring moves to the NFL instead of returning for their senior seasons. The All-American Cody has already said he’s coming back.
Saban has traced his team’s evolution to last year’s Independence Bowl victory, when the players started to buy into his way of doing things. Now comes the next challenge: Sustaining success.
“I think the circumstances are entirely different now,” Saban said. “We’re going to have to have a little different approach to be able to continue to grow and develop the culture of success we want to have and the standard of excellence we’re trying to aspire to. Players are going to have to make a different kind of commitment because they can’t be satisfied.”
The biggest spring battle will be to replace Wilson, the school’s all-time leading passer. Backup Greg McElroy has played in eight games the past two seasons, completing 16-of-20 passes for 196 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.
Freshman Star Jackson redshirted this season. He was rated as the nation’s No. 2 scrambling quarterback by Rivals.com coming out of high school.
“I think this will be a great spring for us from the standpoint of competition,” offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jim McElwain said. “I think each one of them, we’ve got to find out exactly what they do best and then how it’s going to fit with the rest of our offense. Not to go into detail about each one of them, I’m looking forward to the challenge of now going ahead and creating something else.”
Most of a recruiting class ranked No. 1 nationally last year got a chance to contribute as freshmen.
Receiver Julio Jones and linebacker Don’ta Hightower both were immediate starters, along with Cody. Jones led the team in receiving with 924 yards. Sophomore middle linebacker Rolando McClain was a third-team AP All-American.
Wilson feels like the seniors are leaving the team in good hands.
“We had a bunch of young guys that played this year and had every opportunity to excel and be leaps and bounds better than we were this year,” he said.