Expectations are soaring at Alabama, where a 10-win season is practically considered a debacle and national championship contention is a minimum standard not a hope-we-can ambition.
Settle for a non-BCS bowl game? How embarrassing.
"It's the Alabama standard," All-America linebacker C.J. Mosley said. "It's the tradition that we live by. We're here to win championships. That's why everybody said they want coach (Nick) Saban here, and that's why the fans love us because they expect the same thing out of us every year. So why have anything less than a championship?
"Why would you want to go 10-3? Why would you want to just settle for the Capital One Bowl? Why not be great every time you can?"
The Crimson Tide is considered a front-runner for a third straight national championship and fourth in five years. The offense could lead the way this time.
Quarterback AJ McCarron has led Alabama to the past two national titles and directs an offense loaded with playmakers — albeit minus three All-America linemen. The defense has been annually among the nation's best, even if coordinator Kirby Smart insists 2012 was a down year despite yielding the nation's fewest yards and points.
Mosley and safety HaHa Clinton-Dix return but gone are two defensive line starters, All-America cornerback Dee Milliner and team leader linebacker Nico Johnson.
The SEC schedule is kinder than it could be once again. The Tide won't face SEC East powers South Carolina, Georgia or Florida in the regular season. Then again, the first two games are against Virginia Tech in Atlanta and a trip to Texas A&M — after an open date to switch defensive gears for the Aggies' hurry-up, no-huddle attack.
Saban, who acknowledges his title celebrations only last for a night, is trying to keep his players from dwelling in past successes. The coach borrows from Michael Jordan's take on game-winning shots.
"The only one that matters is the next one," Saban said.
Five things to watch during Alabama's upcoming season:
1. HANDLING THE HYPE: Saban has said the 2010 Bama team that, incidentally, finished 10-3 and went to the Capital One Bowl, was as talented as his three national champions at Alabama, if not moreso. Talent alone won't likely carry the Tide past Virginia Tech and SEC West rivals Texas A&M and LSU — the only two teams to beat 'Bama the past two seasons. The offseason started out rough with four players arrested and dismissed and, Saban said, some others skipping classes. He said the attitude improved.
2. OFFENSIVE LINE: Chance Warmack, D.J. Fluker and Barrett Jones have moved on to the NFL from one of the more dominant college offensive lines. How their replacements fare is the biggest question facing the offense. Left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and guard Anthony Steen are potential early-round draft picks, while Ryan Kelly appears entrenched at Jones' center spot.
3. RUNNING DUO: T.J. Yeldon is the headliner among Alabama's tailbacks, but the Tide has thrived with two-back tandems of Trent Richardson/Mark Ingram, Richardson/Eddie Lacy and Lacy/Yeldon. Yeldon was a 1,000-yard rusher as a freshman who had two of his best performances in the SEC and national championship games. Fellow sophomore Kenyan Drake was effective as a reserve last season while Jalston Fowler and Dee Hart are returning from knee injuries. Derrick Henry, who broke Ken Hall's 51-year-old national high school rushing mark, leads four highly rated freshman backs joining the mix.
4. TARGET-RICH ENVIRONMENT: Amari Cooper had perhaps the best season by an Alabama receiver as a freshman, when three of his cohorts went down to season-ending injuries. Every key wideout returns and redshirt freshman Chris Black was a slightly more heralded recruit last year than Cooper before a preseason shoulder injury. Kenny Bell and DeAndrew White also were lost for the season at some point. Even without them, McCarron passed for 2,933 yards and 30 touchdowns against three interceptions and led the nation in passing efficiency. All that could lead to more passing than usual.
5. KEEPING UP: Fast-paced offenses gave Alabama troubles at times last season, and Tide coaches have already pointed out to defenders that they'll see seven of them this season. Saban put an emphasis on "fast-twitch" pass rushers during the latest recruiting class to better chase down quarterbacks like Johnny Manziel.
Predicted order of finish in the SEC: First.
AP college football site: http://collegefootball.ap.org/
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