They stood in the bright Alabama sunshine, admiring the man in front of them. An hour before the kickoff of the Crimson Tide's A-Day spring game on Saturday, more than 200 fans gathered around Nick Saban, some posing for pictures, others recording the moment for posterity with their iPhones. One teenage girl kissed the coach; an elderly woman clad in a crimson sweater rubbed his leg. It didn't matter to them that they were only in the presence of the nine-foot statue of Saban outside of Bryant-Denny Stadium; they simply wanted to be close to their bronzed Caesar.
"Let's just go get our picture with Bear Bryant's statue," a mother in the back of the crowd told her daughter. "There's no line for the Bear."
There's also no doubt that Saban is now as officially beloved in Alabama as Bryant, who, unlike Saban, never won three national titles in four years. When Saban walked onto the field on Saturday afternoon in a light tan sports coat and dark slacks, the crowd of 78,315 unleashed a roar that rumbled high into the blue, Southern sky. During the game, Saban was as intense as ever as he stood on the field 20 yards behind the offensive line, clapping his hands after nearly every play, jumping in the faces of players who committed a mental blunder, and slapping the pads of a player in appreciation of executing an assignment with sound fundamentals.
What was clear after A-Day?which featured nine turnovers and was sloppy even by the low standards of a spring game? is that Saban believes his team has the physical talent to win another national championship, but is unsure if it has the temperament to become the first team to capture four national titles over a five year span (and this statistic is plain shocking) since Yale in 1909.
"The biggest thing I was concerned about was how the team would go out there and what would be their energy, their enthusiasm, and their attention to detail. So, mental intensity," Saban said. "I don't think that there were enough guys that answered that question in a positive way to my liking. But I'm never satisfied. I spoke to a bunch of alumni groups today, and they all want me to make a comparison between this year's team and last year's team and the team before that, and the team before that, and the team before that. And I wasn't happy with any of those teams at this point."
"We have a high standard at what we want to do, and we need to realize that every team that we play is going to bring their 'A' game, and that that game is circled on their calendar as to what they want to do when they come play Alabama."
In five of the last six years, according to Rivals.com, Alabama has landed the top recruiting class in the nation. Even though the Tide must replace nine starters from last year?including three on the offensive line?every new face is a former four- or five-star recruit. But the key to the season will be an older face: fifth-year senior quarterback AJ McCarron, who had an impressive spring. In two scrimmages leading up to A-Day, McCarron completed 38 of 56 passes for 600 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception. On his first drive on Saturday, McCarron floated a thing of beauty to Kenny Bell on the right sideline for a 23-yard gain. On the next play he rifled a tight spiral about 55-yards that landed in the arms Bell in the end zone.
McCarron, a Heisman candidate, finished the game 19 of 30 for 223 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. McCarron said the offense ran only "eight" different plays and that the pass protection scheme was as simple as what is used in Pop Warner ball. But it was obvious during the game?indeed, during the entire spring?that McCarron has more heat on his fastball than he's ever possessed.
"I feel great," McCarron said after the game. "Better than I ever have, really. My arm feels strong. My lower body feels great. I'm stronger in the weight room than I've ever been. My body feels really good. I can feel the ball coming out of my hands with more zip on the ball. I had arm trouble from that  season and dealing with ribs [last year]. I just feel like my body is totally healthy. Me being stronger in my lower body has really helped me get more zip on the ball."
A starter in the last two national title games, McCarron also has emerged as the team's most vocal leader this spring. "He's very serious on the field," said Ryan Kelly, a sophomore center who is replacing three-time all-American Barrett Jones. "He knows what it takes to get there. Sometimes AJ, being the older guy, if he thinks you're not producing or he knows you can do it and you're not doing it, he's going to get on your ass. You can't take it personal. He's yelled at me before. But I respect him as a leader and as a player. He just wants the best for the offense and he knows how good we can be."
Even President Obama, who hosted the 2012 national champions at the White House on Monday, noted the importance of McCarron to the Tide. "I hear he's coming back for one more year, because apparently the rest of the SEC defenses haven't suffered enough," the President said during the ceremony. "So he's going to subject them to a little more pain."
After the game, as McCarron and Saban walked toward the north end zone tunnel that would lead them to the locker room, another Alabama legend stood on the sideline and marveled the Crimson Tide dynasty. "Coach Saban is going to be here at least six, seven, eight more years, and as long as he's here, this isn't going to stop," said Trent Richardson, the former Alabama running back who was wearing a Cleveland Browns hat turned backward. "He's today's Bear Bryant. It's just not going to stop."