Tide churning in anticipation of another championship run

Despite some lingering euphoria following their 14th national championship, the Alabama Crimson Tide aren't content to rest on their laurels as they gear up for what should be another highly successful campaign.

Coach Nick Saban's squad completed yet another in a long line of superb seasons by dominating fellow SEC power LSU, 21-0, in the BCS National Championship Game last January. It was Alabama's second national title in the last three years, and with that kind of success comes heightened expectations, as well as the full attention of every challenger seeking to dethrone the reigning champs.

Alabama faces a stiff test right out of the chute, as the Tide kick off the 2012 season against Michigan at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas on September 1. Two weeks later, they open SEC action at Arkansas, and really get into the meat of their conference slate when they battle Ole Miss, Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi State, LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn the rest of the way. Two of their four non-league games will take place after the start of SEC play, with each serving as little more than a tune-up as neither Florida Atlantic nor FCS foe Western Carolina pose much of a threat.

With so much emphasis put on quarterback play, and rightfully so, field generals at Alabama have in the past, simply been asked to run the offense efficiently and not make the kind of costly mistakes that tend to hamper a team's ability to win games. Saban is fortunate to have A.J. McCarron back for another go after the then-redshirt sophomore completed nearly 67 percent of his passes for 2,634 yards, 16 TDs and only five INTs in leading the Crimson Tide to the national title.

The loss of All-America RB Trent Richardson (1,679 yards, 21 TDs) hurts, but ready to step in and hopefully make the transition as painless as possible is redshirt junior Eddie Lacey. In 12 games last season, Lacy carried the ball 95 times for 674 yards and seven TDs. He has gained 1,080 yards on 151 totes in his career at Alabama (7.2 ypc), backing up the likes of Richardson and former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram.

Kenny Bell is the team's top returning receiver, but he had just 17 catches for 255 yards and two scores last season, so it's obvious that he, and others will need to elevate their level of play considerably if the 'Bama passing attack is going to be effective enough to take pressure off Lacey and the running game.

Although the RBs in Tuscaloosa have garnered most of the headlines the last few years, the Crimson Tide defense has been among the nation's elite as well, and this season should be no different. Despite the loss of some key components, Saban and his staff have amassed a fast and furious bunch of defenders that would make just about every coach, at every level, envious.

Gone are most of the productive guys from last year's club, including standouts Dont'a Hightower, Mark Barron and Courtney Upshaw. And while taking that kind of hit would deplete most programs, this is Alabama. Its second and third- string guys could be starters on most other teams. C.J. Mosley (37 stops) is the top returning tackler, and a handful of guys expected to ratchet up their game include defensive lineman Jesse Williams (6-4, 320 pounds), cornerback Dee Milliner (three INTs), linebacker Nico Johnson (47 tackles, 6.5 TFL) and safety Robert Lester (39 tackles, five passes defended).

An infusion of talented recruits adds depth, but some of them will need to step in and play an active role right away if the 'Bama defense is going to be considered among the very best once again.

A team from the SEC has won the last six BCS National Championships, and there is every reason to expect the Crimson Tide to be in the mix for yet another title. Still, a lot will depend on the defense coming together as a cohesive unit sooner rather than later.

Saban, who in addition to winning two BCS crowns with Alabama also led LSU to the national title in 2003, is one of the top coaches in all of college football. With the level of success he has achieved, surely other teams would love the opportunity to court him. Alabama has no intention of letting him go though, recently adding two more years on his current contract (now through the 2019 season), with a total haul for the 60-year-old West Virginia native over the remaining years expected to come in at just under $45 million.

Bell knows what it means to not only this current team, but future Alabama squads and the Tuscaloosa community in general, to have Saban locked up for the foreseeable future, "It put a smile on everybody's face, knowing they'll have a great coach for as long as he's here."

Alabama has invested wisely in a proven commodity, and you can bet that Saban and his charges are going to be ready to defend their title against all comers. Being lucky plays a part, but there is no discounting the tireless effort put in by the coach, his staff and his players to make sure that Alabama remains at top of the heap when it comes to success on the gridiron.