When the nation last saw Alabama, the Crimson Tide's season was ending in disastrous fashion.

Then the team lost three All-Americans, an All-Southeastern Conference tailback and a quarterback who left with just about every school passing record.

Coach Nick Saban even had to dismiss a starting linebacker from the team during the offseason.

Poor Alabama? Guess again.

Expectations have only ratcheted higher for the Tide after last season's surprising ascension into the national championship mix, thanks to a loaded defense and stars like receiver Julio Jones, nose guard Terrence Cody and linebacker Rolando McClain.

Forget sneaking up on anybody like last year's team. The USA Today coaches poll has Alabama No. 5 going into the season opener with Virginia Tech at Atlanta on Sept. 5.

"We know the bull's-eye is on our back," McClain said. "We don't really mind. We're just going to continue to do what we've been doing. Coach Saban's not going to let us do less."

Even if Saban can't get that message across, there's always the lingering memories from humbling season-ending losses to Florida and Utah that laid waste to a 12-0 regular-season record and No. 1 ranking.

Gone from that team are those three All-Americans, left tackle Andre Smith, center Antoine Caldwell and free safety Rashad Johnson. Not to mention quarterback John Parker Wilson and tailback Glen Coffee.

The Tide will try to reverse a recent trend: Since 1996, the four Alabama teams following seasons with double-digit wins have gone a combined 17-31.

Junior Greg McElroy takes over for Wilson after attempting only 20 passes the past three seasons, counting a redshirt year. Saban emphasizes that a quarterback can't be successful without teammates playing well around him _ which Wilson had.

"I don't have any expectations for him," Saban said. "I can tell you what he's done to this point and how happy we are with what he's done to this point. He's very smart, a very bright guy, a good understanding of the offense. The players really like him.

"He has a lot of positive leadership qualities and it does affect other people. He's very instinctive and he makes good choices and decisions at his position."

One obvious good decision would be to throw the ball frequently to Jones, a sophomore who quickly emerged as one of the SEC's best playmakers. McElroy will have plenty of guys to hand off to, also, even after Coffee skipped his senior season to enter the NFL draft.

Mark Ingram was a pounding, effective backup as a freshman and his 12 touchdown runs led the team. Roy Upchurch and highly regarded signee Trent Richardson are also in the mix.

Who will protect McElroy's blind side? Junior college transfer James Carpenter and freshman D.J. Fluker are vying to replace Smith, the Outland Trophy winner who was the sixth overall pick in the NFL draft by Cincinnati. Fluker and Richardson were two of the top signees from 'Bama's second straight top-ranked recruiting class.

William Vlacchos is the heir apparent at center, but guard Mike Johnson is the line's leader.

A defense that ranked third nationally in yards allowed last season returns eight starters, even with the offseason dismissal of linebacker Brandon Fanney, the team's No. 3 tackler, for violating team rules.

Stars abound, from All-Americans Cody and McClain to cornerback Javier Arenas to linebacker Dont'a Hightower, a freshman All-America pick last season.

The defensive mission is to improve a pass rush that was middle-of-the-pack in the league in sacks last season.

There's enough talent to raise questions about whether the defense could be even better than last year's group. McClain steers away from such talk. He said the defense and the team just want to finish games and the season better.

"We know we have an opportunity to be pretty good," he said. "We're not really focused on how good we can be as a team or defense right now. We're focusing on finishing this offseason.

"We didn't finish last year. We lost to Florida and Utah, so we've got to finish as a team and more important as a defense."