28 days, and counting down. Alabama Football is prepared to take the stage in Atlanta and put on a season—long show that should end in consecutive Western Conference Championships and take fans back to Atlanta for another bid to wear the Southeastern Conference Championship crown.
There are skeptics that won't jump on the bandwagon until the hardware is in the bag.
Saban himself won't talk of what should happen, but only the results of what did happen to end the 2008 campaign. He reminds the returning players and coaches of the 2009 squad that 12-0 is not good enough.
It was full of good memories, but the beatdown in New Orleans is the memory that lasts. The poor choice by a team leader became the distraction that took away the best left tackle protecting the blind side of an Alabama QB in two decades, leading to the New Year's debacle.
The enemy from within left the Alabama coaches and players themselves blindsided in the week before the second biggest game of the 2008 season. That fatal distraction is the wormwood spicing the water cooler on the sidelines of Drew-Thomas Field.
Focus. Work hard and prepare. In a press conference after the second day of summer practice, Saban stated:
"We have got to develop more players that contribute to the process of moving the ball for positive yards. It's an honor to be recognized in the preseason coaches poll, but it is where you end up at the end of the season that matters the most."
Saban keeps his players the main focus of preparation. His goal is to develop the student athlete for lifetime success, not success for a season. A passionate desire to give each player a chance to become the best football player and best citizen that individual can become, is what motivates the Alabama head coach.
He will not change his philosophy of how the game should be played in order to make up for deficits in talent, strength and conditioning by adopting the spread or some variation to win in the short term.
He is willing to be patient until he attracts the kind of players who are willing to buy into his program for lifetime success. After two seasons of recruiting and three seasons of coaching these young men, he is ready to field a team that will rival any past Alabama champion.
Enter the 2009 recruiting class. Saban's first impression of the freshmen was:
"Some of those guys had so much anxiety, I never ever saw a look on their face like last night. They looked like they were coming to a gang fight and their gang didn't show."
Despite their anxiety, they performed admirably and several in this class will contribute enormously to the 2009 campaign. Saban has recruited versatility, athleticism, strength and intelligence to the Alabama program—something that has been lacking since the growling Bear paced the sidelines.
First, the strength of the 2009 team will be the defense. Terrence Cody will be a force to contend with front and center. He is backed by Josh Chapman and surrounded on both sides with more talent and beef than Alabama has had in years.
Lorenzo Washington and Brandon Deaderick flank the mammoth nose tackle. Together, this trio add up to nearly 950 pounds of meat to bypass in order to attack the Alabama second line of defense.
In addition, there is depth at the DE position for the 2009 campaign that has been lacking in years past. Marcel Dareus, Milton Talbert, Nick Gentry, Luther Davis and Damion Square ensure no loss of talent if the starters take to the sidelines.
The second line starts with defensive captain, middle linebacker Rolando McClain. McClain has been a leader and exceptional player since his debut on the Alabama turf. He is returning to the "Mike" position and will not be moved.
Dont'a Hightower is another player who had sudden impact as a freshman, and will stay on the field unless injury intervenes. Seniors Corey Reamer and Eryk Anders will provide speed at the edge and pressure the opposing QB to test the Alabama secondary.
Safety Justin Woodall gave up a million in cash to play football for Alabama and until his junior year, did not break into the starting rotation. Woodall finished with four interceptions in 2008. He will anchor the third line of defense.
The likely replacement at the safety position will be Robby Green, unless Robert Lester steps up his game and displaces the 6-0' 180 lb sophomore. Cornerbacks Arenas and Kareem Jackson have enough experience to make any receiver loose sleep in preparation for "The Alabama Game".
Incoming freshman Dre Kirkpatrick will pressure Jackson for playing time in the secondary and may in fact be the starter by season end.
On the offensive side of the ball, there will be no weakness like fans saw in the Utah game at left tackle.
JUCO transfer James Carpenter and true freshman DJ Fluker will allow Bama fans to overlook the loss of Andre Smith, and more importantly, allow Greg McElroy to look down field with confidence. Rest assured Bama fans, the blindside will be covered by capable warriors.
Experience is essential for an offensive line; Mike Johnson and Drew Davis provide upperclassman leadership to this young corp. Look for Alfred McCullough, William Vlachos, and Tyler Love to make significant contributions to the offensive line performance in 2009.
Chance Warmack and Brian Motley will play reserve roles and incoming freshman Anthony Steen, Darius McKeller, and Kellen Williams will have time to develop before they are needed to fill the role as protector and defender.
Running back Mark Ingram was the surprise of the 2008 freshman class. He busted out against the Clemson Tigers, making his debut in front of millions who expected the Tide to loose their opening game.
Ingram mounted the centerfold in following week issue of Sports Illustrated due to his game high 96 yards rushing against the highly touted defense of the Clemson Tigers. He proceeded to gain more than 700 yards on 143 carries for better than 5.0 yards per carry in a backup role to Glen Coffee. Roy Upchurch will provide senior leadership to the running back corps.
Zoom in on the battle between Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy, as the struggle for playing time between these true freshmen heats up with the arrival of August two-a-days.
Terry Grant will be worked into the rotation during the season.Offensive genius Jim McElwain will find a way to use this talented weapon. Fully recovered from sports hernia surgery, Grant has regained his ability to cut and accelerate as he did in 2007.
He is likely to spend time in the slot, rotating with Marquis Maze, taking the ball in space and making plays with shear speed and uncommon agility.
The best addition to the line will be TE Colin Peek. He has all the skills Saban has been wanting in the tight end position and will be a useful outlet for Greg McElroy.
Look for the tight end position to contribute to the Bama offense as much or more than it did in the days of Ozzie Newsome. Back ups Brad Smelley and Preston Dial will allow McElwian to utilize the two tight end formation, providing muscle and skill in the red zone.
All three of these talented players have gifted hands for the high hard ones McElroy will deliver on target.
Speed kills, and now Alabama possesses the depth it has desired to compliment Julio Jones in the wide receiver position. Freshmen Michael Bowman (6'4") and Kevin Norwood (6'3") both possess 4.5 speed that will stretch the defense and open lanes for the run or pass.
There will be more options for passer Greg McElroy. Senior Mike McCoy and junior Earl Alexander can push this group to achieve much more than any other receiving corps that has ever taken the field at the Capstone.
Look for Marquis Maze to burn defenses with his blazing speed and remarkable ability to make the Prothro-like catches that he has tantalized 'Bama fans with during his brief glimpses on the turf at Bryant-Denny.
The table is set. Saban has what he needs to get the job done for 2009. His staff is the best in the business.
Sunseri and Willis have allowed the players to move passed the defections of the beloved Steel and Thompson. McElwain is ready to unleash his genius with players that possess skills like no other offense he has directed.
The Tide should Roll, and Roll big in 2009. Nothing short of an SEC championship will be good enough for the coaches, players and fans.
Should they win that game, they will be in position to grab the National Championship crown and set the stage for the return of a dynasty.