Alabama 'starting all over' after disappointing finish to last season
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Those who believe that the stunning ending to last November's Iron Bowl still haunts Alabama coach Nick Saban are mistaken. His displeasure stretches back farther than that.
"It wasn't the last play of the Auburn game that gets me," Saban said during an interview in his office earlier this week. "It's how we played in the game. We had a couple penalties. We shot ourselves in the foot, missed a field goal, ran the ball to the seven-yard line, then had a holding penalty. We had the ball inside the 20-yard line three times in the fourth quarter and never scored a point.
"And then we had some of the same issues in the bowl game [against Oklahoma]."
At most schools, a two-game losing streak is a temporary hiccup. At Alabama, it's cause for an existential crisis. Despite winning three of the college football's last five national championships, signing a fourth straight top-rated recruiting class in February and earning a new $7 million annual contract, the Crimson Tide's eighth-year coach is hitting the reset button on his entire operation. Alabama, in his words, is "starting all over," just like it's 2007 again, when Saban was beginning to build the program that would emerge as the sport's gold standard.
On numerous occasions this offseason, Saban has lamented that the Tide got complacent in 2013 following consecutive BCS titles in '11 and '12, even though they started 11-0 and remained in the hunt for a third straight crown right up until Auburn's Chris Davis returned that missed field goal 109 yards for a touchdown on Nov. 30. "After the LSU game last year [a 38-17 win on Nov. 9], it seemed like we didn't practice as well, didn't pay attention to detail, didn't prepare quite as well," Saban said. "We didn't play very well at Mississippi State [the following week]. Started turning the ball over more, quit really focusing on the things that helped you have success.
"When you win a lot, sometimes you don't continue to emphasize those very things that created the success to start with. Everybody just sort of loses a little respect for those things, whether it's attention to detail, discipline and execution, giving effort, finishing plays, preparing for the game like you need to. So starting all over is kinda just, go back to the beginning and make sure we're doing the things that maybe we lost some respect for that are the very things that helped us be successful to start with."
The perception of Alabama's 2013 team as entitled underachievers took hold when star quarterback AJ McCarron made critical comments about the Tide's younger cast of former all-everything prospects in the week leading up to the Super Bowl. But McCarron was hardly the only veteran player who realized that something was amiss before 'Bama's 34-28 loss to archrival Auburn and its 45-31 Sugar Bowl defeat to 17-point underdog Oklahoma on Jan. 2.
"We kind of got complacent," said rising senior linebacker Trey DePriest. "We just wrote ourselves in as going to the big dance and stopped doing all those little things that were giving us that opportunity to go to the big dance. We automatically thought that, all right, since we beat LSU, these next two teams, we're going to roll and then we'll see who we play in our bowl game.
"It didn't go like that."
Saban has been pleased thus far with "the attitude and approach the players have taken in the spring." The 2014 Crimson Tide will make their unofficial debut in Saturday's A-Day Game, which is generally one of the nation's more telling spring games due to Saban's emphasis on competition. The game's 70,000-plus attendees will likely focus primarily on two figures: a guy in a visor and the guy under center.
In January, Saban stunned the college football world -- including a large portion of his own fan base -- by hiring controversial former USC coach Lane Kiffin to replace offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, now at Michigan. This, after the then-unemployed Kiffin visited 'Bama during bowl practices last year to provide "professional development" to the staff. (Saban insists reports at the time that Kiffin came to critique the Crimson Tide's offense were a mischaracterization and noted that former Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore did much the same thing a year earlier.)
Given Kiffin's dubious reputation, dating back to his one-year stint at Tennessee in 2009, it's fair to ask why a coach like Saban, with the clout to hire just about any offensive mind, gravitated toward him. The most basic explanation is supply and demand.
"The biggest thing is ... we felt maintaining the pro-style approach was the most beneficial to the players that we have," said Saban. "So when you start looking around in college football -- because there's so much of the [spread] stuff -- it's hard to find people that have a background in [pro-style]. Lane philosophically is a lot like I am in terms of what they did at USC, what they did at Tennessee when he was there, so it was a pretty good fit for us."
Saban's assistants are off limits to the media except for one day in August, so it wasn't possible to ask Kiffin about his vision for the offense. Still, the first glimpse of that unit will come on Saturday. And Kiffin's biggest imprint might come before the ball is snapped.
"He's got a little more experience at doing multiples of things," said Saban. "Pro-style to me is moving players around -- not necessarily running different plays but maybe a different presentation in terms of formations and all that. We'll be a little bit more able to do some of those things."
Receiver Amari Cooper describes Kiffin as "a cool dude" who "likes to get his playmakers the ball." The coordinator has no shortage of them to use. Cooper, a third-year standout who had an eye-opening nine catches for 228 yards and five touchdowns in Alabama's two spring scrimmages, leads a deep receiving corps that includes veterans Christion Jones, DeAndrew White and explosive sophomore Chris Black. Star tailback T.J. Yeldon and breakout Sugar Bowl performer Derrick Henry headline the backfield, while tight ends Brian Vogler and O.J. Howard are established weapons.
But those playmakers' potential will hinge heavily on Kiffin's ability to develop a capable replacement for Heisman Trophy runner-up McCarron and two new starters on the offensive line. By all accounts, fifth-year senior Blake Sims has asserted command of the quarterback competition this spring, but that doesn't mean he'll be the starter this fall. Florida State transfer Jacob Coker, who battled eventual Heisman winner Jameis Winston for the Seminoles' starting job last preseason, will arrive this summer. The Tide's quarterback race therefore might remain undecided come the season opener against West Virginia on Aug. 30.
"You have to let the competition happen. You can't premeditate what's going to happen," said Saban. "AJ and Phillip Sims split time [in the season opener] three years ago. I'm not saying it's going to be that way this year, but I'm not saying it's not going to be. How you play in a game matters, especially if the two guys are close."
Defensively, Alabama is stocked with elite talent, but perhaps with more question marks than it's had in years past. The defensive line, led by dominant 6-foot-4, 320-pound sophomore A'Shawn Robinson, has made "significant progress" and may wind up being the strength of the unit. Juco transfer Jarran Reed, 6-4 and 310 pounds, has made a strong impression and may land one of the starting end positions. Third-year starting middle linebacker DePriest takes over for departed All-America C.J. Mosley as the defensive play-caller, but he'll be surrounded by at least two new starters.
However, the secondary is unquestionably the Crimson Tide's biggest concern. Their cornerbacks were underwhelming last season, and the most promising of the group, sophomore Eddie Jackson, tore his ACL earlier this month. He is expected to return during the fall. Meanwhile, safeties Ha Ha Clinton Dix and Vinnie Sunseri both declared for this May's NFL draft. Landon Collins, who stepped in for the injured Sunseri last year, has All-America potential, while veterans Geno Smith and Nick Perry vie for the other spot.
"We've got a ways to go," Saban said of the secondary, which defensive coordinator Kirby Smart now coaches after previously overseeing the linebackers. "The whole group needs to be a little more consistent in how we communicate, play together and execute. But I am encouraged by the improvement."
Mostly, Saban is encouraged that his players have embraced a back-to-the-beginning mentality. All who were interviewed this week admitted to sensing complacency last year. All seem determined to avoid it in 2014.
"Since [Saban] said that the first time at our meeting after the Oklahoma game everybody's hopped on that train and really bought into everything he said," said DePriest. "And you can tell just by how things have gone. Everybody's getting back to the standard of how we play Alabama football."
That standard is now national title or bust. Saban has already talked to his roster about the rigors of potentially playing an extra game with the introduction of a four-team playoff. While "not taking anything away from Auburn," it's clear he feels last season's team should have at least reached Atlanta, if not Pasadena.
"Look, I think we had good enough players to do it," Saban said. "Did we have all the other stuff? All the right stuff when it comes to competitive character, team chemistry, leadership, motivation to do it? Or did the complacency affect those things to the degree that we just ... weren't ... quite what we could have been?"
This year's team may have more of the right stuff. On Saturday, fans will begin to find out whether it has the necessary quarterback and cornerbacks.