'Bama way: Process over results keeps Crimson Tide on top

A few plays are often the difference between a truly successful season at Alabama and one that leaves the Crimson Tide feeling unfulfilled. The finest line separates a championship team and one that comes up just short.

By thinking beyond the slimmest margins that separate winning and losing, Alabama coach Nick Saban has built one of the greatest dynasties in college football history.

''I talk a lot about trying to be a dominant player, not winning the game,'' Saban told The Associated Press. ''I talk a lot about being a champion, not winning a championship. And there's a little bit of difference in that. We're trying to create a process here that helps a guy be all he can be. We're not trying to create a process that wins a game.''

Though there has been an awful lot of that going on in Tuscaloosa since Saban got to town in 2007. And there is no reason to think it will stop this season.

The defending national champion Crimson Tide is the No. 1 team in The Associated Press preseason Top 25 for the third time under Saban and the fifth time in the history of the program.

The Tide received 33 of 61 first-place votes from the media panel and 1,469 points in the poll released Sunday. No. 2 Clemson, which lost the College Football Playoff championship game to Alabama in January, received 16 first-place votes and 1,443 points.

Oklahoma is No. 3 in the preseason poll and received four first-place votes. No. 4 Florida State had five first-place votes. No. 5 LSU, No. 6 Ohio State and No. 7 Michigan all received one first-place vote.

Alabama has won an unprecedented four national championships in the last seven seasons, but none has come when the Tide started No. 1 (2010 and 2013). That's one of a couple of trends Alabama will be trying to buck this season. The last preseason No. 1 to win the national championship was Southern California in 2004.

Still, Alabama is the safest bet in college football. Since 2008, only once has a season reached Thanksgiving without Alabama in contention for a national title. In three seasons (2008, 2013, 2014) during which Alabama has not played for the national championship under Saban, the Tide lost a close game to a team that did.

None of that history matters to Saban, who is only two national championships away from matching Bear Bryant's record six during his 25 years as coach at Alabama. Saban does recognize that staying on top is more difficult than getting there.

''It all goes back to competitive character, attitude, how people buy in. How you fight human nature. It's basically human condition to get satisfied with success,'' said the 64-year-old Saban, who is 105-18 at Alabama. ''There's a lot of books written on how to be successful. There's not a lot of books written on how to stay successful.''

Having an army of four- and five-star recruits is a good place to start.

The deepest and most dominant front seven in college football last season had three players (linemen A'Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed and linebacker Reggie Ragland) taken in the second round of the NFL draft. The next wave of stars includes linebacker Reuben Foster, edge pass rusher Tim Williams and defensive end Jonathan Allen. Talent is never in question in Tuscaloosa. Replacing the leadership Robinson, Reed and Ragland brought to the team will be more difficult.

''I can't say that I know that they will step in those roles,'' Saban said. ''I don't think your true competitive character ever gets revealed until you get in the heat of the battle, and how you respond to things when it doesn't go your way.''

Alabama will be breaking in a new starting quarterback this season. But why worry about that? Three of the Tide's championships under Saban, including last season's, have come with first-year starting quarterbacks.

The Tide loses a Heisman Trophy-winning running back in Derrick Henry and has two former five-star recruits waiting to pick up the slack in Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough.

The machine keeps humming.

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Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP

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