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July 18, 2013

SEC MEDIA DAYS: Saban, Tide enter 2013 season looking for three-peat

HOOVER — Somewhere in the dusty depths of college football folklore, it's believed Nick Saban actually chopped down George Washington's cherry tree, that he once hung out with the Dos Equis man and found him boring, and that the Alabama head coach beat the Harlem Globetrotters but didn't think it was a big enough deal to tell anyone.

All legends aside, however, one thing Saban has never done is enter a season in search of a three-peat — until now.

That campaign unofficially kicked off with the Tide's session at SEC Media Days on Thursday, and suffice to say, Saban is ready to get going — or for the sake of “the process,” keep going.

Steps 1-3: Rebuild, relock and reload.

“It's a challenge each year to reinvent your team,” Alabama's seventh-year coach said. “You always lose about 25 percent of your team in college, so it creates new opportunities for other players who may not have the same experience. How each and every one of these players sort of accepts those roles and those challenges … has a lot to do with how that team's going to develop.”

Fortunately for Saban and his staff, they don't exactly have to start from scratch.

Gone are the likes of spin-master Eddie Lacy and reliable tight end Michael Williams, but Saban is still prone to believe this year's version of the Tide is sporting an improved set of skill players on offense — and he's probably right.

Fresh off a 30-touchdown, three-interception campaign, A.J. McCarron is back for his senior season behind center. He'll have the luxury of throwing the ball to Amari Cooper, Kevin Norwood and Christion Jones — all returning starters — and handing it off to elusive sophomore T.J. Yeldon.

Oh, and don't forget the stables of backups waiting in the wings at either position — Kenny Bell and DeAndrew White are the most notable wide receivers, while Jalston Fowler, Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake are ones to watch at running back.

With three rings already to his name, McCarron has every right to be cocky. Rather than use a word with such a negative connotation, though, the Heisman hopeful said he's just “confident, especially when I get in the white lines.”

“Personally, I think I'm the best player in the country on that field, and I know our offense is the exact same way,” McCarron said. “It's going to be a fun and exciting offense to watch. I can't wait.”

The senior signal-caller will rely on a mostly re-tooled offensive line following the departure of Barrett Jones, D.J. Fluker and Chance Warmack. Returners Cyrus Kouandjio and Anthony Steen bring a great deal experience to the unit, however, leading McCarron to feel the Tide will be in tip-top shape come gametime.

“The offensive line is going to be great,” he said. “They're a great group of guys not only on the field but off.”

Alabama isn't likely to experience any sort of a drop-off on the flip side of the ball, either, bringing back seven starters to a defense that has established itself as one of the nation's best throughout its two-year reign.

It's not easy to avoid looking ahead to a possible three-peat, but veteran leader C.J. Mosley is doing his best to help the Tide pull back the reins in that regard.

“Basically, (our winning) keeps us humble and it makes us sure that we're living in the moment,” he said. “Not looking ahead to games or thinking about back-to-back championships or anything like that.”

Though Alabama's schedule isn't terribly daunting overall, Saban said he's not apt to overlook his squad's first two tests. The Tide will open the season Aug. 31 at the Georgia Dome versus Virginia Tech — “a 10-win team almost every year” — and then travel to College Station for their most marquee matchup against Texas A&M — “the team that beat us last year.”

The three crystal trophies most recently added to Alabama's mantelpiece indicate its track record in big games. Saban does remember just how many plays happened to swing his team's way last season, though, so he's not willing to make any guarantees just yet.

“We're obviously proud of what our team was able to accomplish last year and the year before, but we also learned that there's five or six plays that can define your season,” he said. “I could go back to last season and say the two-minute drive against LSU, not scoring on fourth-and-2 against Texas A&M, Georgia blocking the field goal in the SEC Championship game and getting up 21-10.

“You never know when those plays are coming up, so you really have to play every play. That's what we're trying to get our players to buy into.”

% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 138 or at robk@cullmantimes.com.

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