It’s May, which in college football means both a sort of rest period and time of anticipation.
Unless you’re quarterback Jacob Coker, who just completed his transfer from Florida State and has started to cram on everything he missed this spring under new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, the University of Alabama football team is essentially off this month. Graduation was last weekend, the summer workouts don’t begin until June, and most of the players have headed home for a much-needed break.
Yet this is a good stretch for the Crimson Tide because this is when the doubters and naysayers are coming to the forefront.
It’s already begun, with the Sporting News recently unveiling the cover for its annual preseason preview, proclaiming Oklahoma the team to beat this season along with big photo of Trevor Knight—who had a career game against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, completing 32 of 44 passes for 348 yards and four touchdowns.
Sporting News' lead college football writer, Matt Hayes, told the Tulsa World: “I think that Bama win gave the program a shot of swagger it lacked in the last few years.”
He’s probably correct. Combined with a very favorable schedule, Oklahoma is the clear favorite in the 10-team Big 12, which doesn’t have a conference championship.
Following the Sooners, Sporting News has Oregon at No. 2 and reigning champion Florida State before Alabama and Auburn.
Meanwhile, in his fourth edition of the Way-Too-Early Preseason Top 25, the post-spring version, Mark Schlabach of ESPN has Alabama second to Florida State.
That’s exactly what Nick Saban wants to see.
Alabama shouldn’t be No. 1 in anyone’s rankings, even though that’s where the Crimson Tide have been nearly nonstop since Florida’s Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow were dethroned in the 2009 SEC title game.
This is no longer the Crimson Tide that won back-to-back national titles. The quarterback competition is barely in its infancy and the defense is in the middle of finding seven new starters. That’s roughly the same number as last year, when Alabama was the obvious preseason choice for top-notch status when it was looking for the three-peat and had a two-year starter at quarterback.
Obviously, things didn’t go as well as hoped.
Saban says the players didn’t want to work hard.
The team wasn’t focused.
It felt entitled.
“I would say we kind of lost focus on what the mission was last season,” senior nose tackle Brandon Ivory said.
“Felt it then. I saw it at the end."
Alabama won the two games everyone had circled on the calendar, at Texas A&M and against LSU, and then acted like the rest of the season was a formality. It took an unbelievable play for an opponent to finally win, but became obvious at the Sugar Bowl.
There’ a reason why no team during the modern age of college football has pulled off a three-peat, and as a result Saban went with a back-to-basics philosophy this offseason. Almost everyone from his original coaching staff in 2007 is back, with Kiffin expected to spice things on offense. Even though 10-plus former Alabama players will get selected in this week’s NFL draft, the roster is still overflowing with talent.
But to get back to the top, Saban knows it’ll need a similar hunger and work ethic to what the 2009, 2011 and 2012 teams had.
“I am very encouraged by the team that we have. I’m very encouraged by the attitude that we have on our team,” he said after Alabama’s spring game, which continues to be a message being delivered during the ongoing Crimson Caravan speaking tour throughout the region.
“I am certainly looking forward to working with this group and us improving over the summer and getting a great start to the season next year when we start fall camp.”
Three things to keep in mind, though, about the preseason rankings that will continue to come out over the summer:
Which team should be preseason No. 1?
1) The last two times Alabama lost two straight games to end the season were 2008 and 2010. In both cases the Crimson Tide responded by winning the national championship.
2) The last two times Alabama was second in the preseason Associated Press poll, where it has a good chance to be again, it went on to take home the crystal football.
3) In addition to Schlabach’s list, the Worldwide Leader also has on its website the Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) projections, which uses numerous statistical indicators to project which teams may take a step forward or backward.
It has Alabama as the team to beat ahead of Oregon. The projection is for the Crimson Tide to go 11-1, with a “47 percent chance” to win the SEC and “59 percent chance” to finish the regular season 11-1 or 12-0, which would be more than enough to get Alabama into the first four-team college football playoff.
But that’s not what Saban wants his players to hear. He wants everyone telling them that Florida State is the national champion, that Oklahoma or Oregon is the team to beat, and that Auburn has bragging rights.
And he wants them to hear it each and every day, whether they’re on campus or not.
Christopher Walsh is the lead Alabama football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.