Champions of The Round Table

 
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Shortly after the crystal trophy had been raised for all to see and the confetti stopped fluttering around the Rose Bowl on Jan. 7, Alabama coach Nick Saban had a message for his newly crowned national champion following the victory against Texas. "Coach Saban came down on us immediately after the (title) game, because we didn't play well in the fourth quarter," senior quarterback Greg McElroy says. "And that's the great thing about coach. He never allows you to sit and relax."

Saban might always seem to be going about 100 miles an hour, but there's no doubt the man and his style get results. Three years after taking over a program that had slipped to mediocrity in the Southeastern Conference with the ascension of
Florida and LSU, Saban guided Alabama to its first national title since 1992 with the 37-21 victory against the Longhorns.

Right after that, he wanted to remind his players that they still could have done better. Perhaps a seed was planted concerning 2010, when they'll likely need to do better, as they open the season atop the USA TODAY Coaches' Poll and as the biggest targets on every opponent's schedule. There will be no resting on laurels in
Tuscaloosa, where fans expect nothing less than a national contender every year.

And while acknowledging that last year's team will have an exalted place in Alabama football lore, Saban believes the less said about 2009, the better it will be for the 2010 Tide.

"Last year is basically over," he says. "We're not really defending a championship. The championship's a part of history, and we're not going to defend anything. Everybody asked the
Yankees when they were in training camp, is it going to be more difficult to repeat winning the World Series this year than last year? All 25 guys said, yes, absolutely, it would be. But nobody could really answer the question why. I think the why (is), it's more difficult to focus on the process of what it takes to be successful when you're coming off of success.

"That's certainly going to be the challenge for our team: our players' willingness to focus on doing the right things. The things that are necessary to create an identity for this team in terms of what this team wants to accomplish and what this team can do in this football season is what we're trying to focus on."

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Plenty of people in the SEC think the Tide will be up to the challenge.

"Alabama is the team that everybody has to beat," says Arkansas coach
Bobby Petrino. "They're coming off a national championship. A great football team. Very good players. Very well-coached."

The coaches' poll is one-third of the Bowl Championship Series formula that determines who plays for the national crown, so the Crimson Tide are in good position there.

And they're in good position on the offensive side, where eight starters return, including Heisman Trophy-winning running back
Mark Ingram, and McElroy, who has been a winner in his last 30 starts dating to his senior year in high school.

Also returning are speedy backup running back Trent Richardson, wide receivers
Julio Jones, a Playboy magazine preseason All-American, and Marquis Maze, and three starters on the offensive line, including 2009 freshman All-America guard Barrett Jones.

"I think we're a lot more comfortable because guys have played in big games and been in big situations, so they've been able to respond to that," McElroy says of the offense. "That does a lot for a team's confidence."

Florida coach
Urban Meyer, whose team visits Tuscaloosa for a showdown Oct. 2 and might meet the Crimson Tide in the SEC championship game for the third year in a row, is quite aware of the danger the Tide skill-position players can pose.

"That's a coach's dream, to have the ability to have that speed," Meyer says. "(With) Julio, you have a problem because he's so big and fast. If you double him, you've left a gap in the running game against a running back like the two that Alabama has, great players, Ingram and Richardson.

"It's not just the one guy. If you just had one, you could stop one player. That's been proven. It's hard to stop when you have balance. And they have tremendous balance."

On the defensive side, however, there are some unknowns for Alabama.

Nine starters are gone from a unit that finished second nationally in total defense, rushing defense, scoring defense and pass efficiency defense in 2009. Among the stars to be replaced: Butkus Award-winning linebacker Rolando McClain, drafted eighth overall by the
Oakland Raiders; All-America nose guard Terrence Cody; and standout cornerback Javier Arenas, who had 154 career tackles.

Only safety Mark Barron and middle linebacker Dont'a Hightower return to the starting lineup, and Hightower missed all but four games last season with a knee injury. He had been a freshman All-American the year before. Linebacker Nico Johnson, who saw increased action after Hightower went down last year, is back for his sophomore season.

Hightower will take over McClain's role as defensive signal-caller.

"The signal-caller is like the quarterback of the defense," he says. "He has to make all the changes and get the play to everybody else, so I'm looking forward to doing that part."

And Hightower believes the desire to make up for the loss of so many defensive stars might be "the foundation and motivation for the defense. We have a lot of talent, speed and athleticism, and we'll use it to our advantage.

"I feel like I have a lot to prove. I don't want to be someone that people say, 'He came back from a knee injury and was never the same again.' "

Defensive end Marcell Dareus also is due back. While not considered a starter last year, he logged enough time and made enough big plays to be counted on as one of the unit's leaders.

One memorable play came late in the second quarter against Texas when Dareus intercepted a shovel pass and returned it 29 yards for a momentum-building touchdown. This was after he had knocked star Longhorns quarterback
Colt McCoy out of the game with a big hit on Texas' first possession. He was named the game's defensive MVP.

Dareus' presence would give the Tide three accomplished leaders — on the line, in the secondary (Barron) and at linebacker (Hightower) — something Saban hopes to use as a foundation for the rest of the defense.

Dareus' status, however, has been a topic of some concern because of a potential
NCAA eligibility issue. His name has been brought up in an investigation into a party put on by agents in Miami over Memorial Day weekend.

Nose guard Josh Chapman should be heard from along with ends
Luther Davis and Damion Square, who is coming off a knee injury.

Barron is the block on which the rest of the defensive backfield will be rebuilt. Saban's recruiting classes have been rated among the nation's best since he got to Tuscaloosa, and there is lots of young but largely untested talent in the secondary, including sophomore cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick.

"These players have grown up in the system," Saban says. "They just don't have the knowledge and experience, the game-time experience we'd like for them to have, which helps them to develop confidence and consistency in their performance."

If Dareus were to be sidelined, at least early in the season, over the eligibility question, it could put more pressure on the veteran-filled offense to carry the load, especially with No. 14 Penn State, No. 19 Arkansas and No. 3 Florida on the schedule in the first five weeks.

That's where Ingram and his mates come in. Ingram last year became the third consecutive sophomore to win the Heisman, following Florida's
Tim Tebow and Oklahoma's Sam Bradford.Those two could not repeat, leaving Ohio State's Archie Griffin (1974-75) as the lone two-time Heisman winner.

Ingram is the only one of last year's five Heisman finalists playing in college this season, but as he found out in 2009, team success can be a determining factor in individual awards.

"Of course (a second Heisman) would be great," he says. "But it's not my main focus. My main focus right now is to better myself as a player each and every day, become the best player I can be for my football team, make the best out of what I can do, put myself in the best position where I can make a lot of plays so I can help our team win games."

And count Ingram among those who believe the ability for Alabama to win another crown is still there, despite the talent lost.

"We believe we have the players, the athletes, the mentality we need to give ourselves a chance to play for a national championship again and win it again," he says.

"It's a matter of everybody individually getting better, then us improving as a unit, jelling as a unit, to give ourselves the best opportunity to win each game, each Saturday, one game at a time. Hopefully that will lead us to a national championship again."

 


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    By Jack Carey

    From: USA Today

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