By Paul Newberry
No matter how much Nick Saban protests, it's always the first thing that comes up with Alabama.
No team has ever won three straight national titles. The top-ranked Crimson Tide sure looks poised to make a run at it, led by one of the nation's top quarterbacks (AJ McCarron) and a host of talented returnees from the team that wiped out Notre Dame in last season's BCS championship game for its second straight crown and third in four years.
The Tide will get started on trying to win another Saturday, taking on rebuilding Virginia Tech at the Georgia Dome.
"Alabama's really done something special," Hokies coach Frank Beamer said. "I never thought there would be a team that was as dominating for as many years as they have. I never thought that would happen again in college football. I just thought the limitations in scholarships, the things were so much more equal. They've done a tremendous job."
It all starts with Saban, who refuses to let his team get complacent. He barely even celebrated after the 42-14 rout of the Fighting Irish, getting right back to work on trying to win another title.
Just don't ask him to look at the big picture. For Saban, the day-to-day grind is at the heart of any successful program, which means he's solely focused on beating the Hokies.
"This is an opportunity for our team to sort of develop an identity for this team for this season, to see if individually and collectively we can play winning football," Saban said, not a hint of joy in his voice. "Or are we going to have a bunch of blinking lights out there, where we're making a bunch of mistakes?"
Not much chance of the latter happening.
Not with McCarron, a third-year starter who knows nothing but success, guiding the offense. Not with all the offensive weapons he has at his disposal, including running back T.J. Yeldon and receiver Amari Cooper. Not with a defense led by linebacker C.J. Mosley and safety HaHa Clinton-Dix.
"They've done a tremendous job in their recruiting, and then they coach them," Beamer marveled. "What they've done is really special. We've got our work cut out for us."
Indeed, Virginia Tech is in a much different place than Alabama. The Hokies are coming off their worst season (7-6) since 1992 and eager to show this isn't a program in decline as Beamer heads into his 27th season as head coach.
With only 10 seniors on the two-deep depth chart, there's not a lot of experience. But dual-threat quarterback Logan Thomas — who, at 6-foot-6 and 254 pounds, is bigger than most of the guys trying to tackle him — gives Virginia Tech at least a glimmer of hope against the mighty Crimson Tide.
"Obviously they're the team to beat. They're the team everybody knows about," Thomas said. "We've just got to go and represent and just have to play well and smart and physical. If we don't have a lot of mental mistakes, we'll be just fine."
Five things to watch for when Alabama begins its quest for a third straight national title:
% FAMILIAR FACES: Alabama shouldn't have any trouble recognizing two of the newcomers on Beamer's staff. Offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler and line coach Jeff Grimes were in those positions at Auburn last season. As you may remember, the hapless Tigers produced a meager 163 yards against the Tide in the Iron Bowl. It will be interesting to see how Loeffler fares against Alabama with a much more dangerous quarterback. Thomas has 20 career rushing touchdowns and needs just 922 yards to pass Tyrod Taylor as the Hokies' leading passer.
% EFFICIENT MCCARRON: Alabama's quarterback was the nation's top-rated passer in 2012, with a school-record 30 touchdowns against just three interceptions. His 291 pass attempts between picks was the second-longest streak in SEC history. Even though the Tide is replacing three starters on the offensive line, there shouldn't be much drop-off from the team that set Alabama records for total offense, total points and passing touchdowns under first-year coordinator Doug Nussmeier. McCarron says he's never had better chemistry with his receivers.
% DEFENSIVE TIDE: The defense normally sets the tone at Alabama, though this group may have to take a backseat to the explosive offense. Nevertheless, the Tide figures to again have one of the nation's stingiest units, if for no other reason than Saban. Given his track record, he could probably take a group of Pop Warner players and turn them into a top college defense.
% GOING FOR THREE: Last season was the 11th time a team has repeated as Associated Press national champion since the first poll in 1936, with Alabama doing it for the third time. Army (1946) and Notre Dame (1948) both finished No. 2 in the AP poll in their bids for a three-peat. So did Southern Cal during the 2005 season, when the Trojans were within 19 seconds of another title before Vince Young scored on a fourth-down run to give Texas a thrilling 41-38 victory.
% EDMUNDS CHANCE: Redshirt freshman Trey Edmunds could be the go-to-guy in the Virginia Tech backfield with J.C. Coleman recuperating from two sprained ankles. Coleman took over midway through last season and had 492 yards and 21 catches. His possible replacement is the son of NFL Pro Bowler Ferrell Edmunds.
% AP Sports Writers John Zenor in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Hank Kurz in Blacksburg, Va., contributed to this report.