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January 6, 2014
What comes next?
NEW ORLEANS | Don't expect much to change or any soul searching to take place around the Mal Moore Football Complex in the coming days. That comes later.
For the next two months, Nick Saban and his Alabama football coaching staff will pour everything they have into recruiting, to finish off an already outstanding 2014 class and continue working the 2015 group.
After that, though, expect the staff to look inward, take a self-audit of sorts to determine what changes, if any, are needed before it gears up for spring practice.
Assessing the 2013 season reveals many positives. Seniors AJ McCarron and C.J. Mosley were as advertised, both leading their respective units as well as could reasonably be expected. Except for a freak last-second play at Auburn, the Crimson Tide would likely be preparing for an appearance in an unheard of third straight BCS National Championship Game. UA held the No. 1 from the preseason until the very last week of the regular season. There were some negatives, too.
Off the field issues were frequent and troubling, led by the Ha Ha Clinton-Dix suspension after receiving impermissible benefits from then-UA assistant strength and conditioning coach Corey Harris. Several players were suspended during the course of the year, too.
But through all the issues, Saban kept his team focused.
"There's lots of lessons to be learned for every team when you have adversity," Saban said.
In the immediate aftermath of Alabama's season ending with a two-game losing streak, the first team-oriented business comes when Saban sits down with a group of underclassmen to discuss whether each should or should not declare for the National Football League Draft in May.
Trey DePriest said earlier in the week he intends to come back for his senior season. Others, including Clinton-Dix, Cyrus Kouandjio, Adrian Hubbard and Jeoffrey Pagan, could opt to forego their senior seasons.
Staff changes are also an almost-yearly occurrence under Saban. Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart's name comes up almost every offseason for vacancies. Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier interviewed before the bowl for the then-vacant Washington job. Other staff members that might be attractive for other programs include Mario Cristobal, Billy Napier and Greg Brown.
What changes Alabama makes to its schemes or philosophy remains to be seen. Saban has previously said he's made an effort to recruit more "fast-twitch" student-athletes to combat the proliferation of the spread-option offenses, which have given the Crimson Tide trouble.
Texas A&M, Auburn and Oklahoma all gave Saban and Smart fits, although they had little trouble with Ole Miss, which also runs a similar offense.
Will Saban re-evaluate again this offseason? Those offenses are only increasing in popularity and success. Then comes the business of personnel issues.
First and foremost is replacing McCarron and Mosley, and not just their on-the-field production. Both exhibited excellent leadership that isn't easy to replace.
"I think that coaches probably can affect things from outside in to some degree, but I think how the team gets affected from inside out probably ultimately determines how much buy-in you really have to whatever any coach says," Saban said. "But I think there's two things about leadership, is you can have great leadership, but there has to be people on the team that is willing to respond to the leadership and to buy in and do the things that they need to do."
Plenty of quarterbacks will vie for the starting job, including Luke Del Rio, Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Cooper Bateman and Parker McLeod. That list doesn't include David Cornwell, who joins the team when he signs his national letter of intent, or any potential transfer.
Corner backs will also be completely overhauled with Deion Belue graduating and a turn style at the second spot. Eddie Jackson started the Sugar Bowl and Cyrus Jones and Maurice Smith are also players that saw playing time in 2013. A talented freshman class of defensive backs could help, but it's never wise to count on a freshman to contribute heavily.
Tightening up that unit will be chief among Saban's concerns. Alabama wasn't prepared for so much turnover this season.
"Well, we have not had that. We are not used to that," Smart said. "We've kind of always had one key guy with all the first round, second round corners we've had, we've always had a staple guy there, then kind of an understudy that was the other one who was an up-and-coming corner. Hasn't been that way this year. It's been frustrating. Some of that has been because of injury.
"We've not gotten the consistency we want out of that position. And we don't have the depth that we've had in the past. So it's been a struggle. A couple of the kids have done well in Bowl practice. We hope they play well in the game, as they practice well. That's what we're looking forward to seeing."
Don't expect Alabama to fall off too much in 2014. There is something to be said for the team not having to play with the three-peat pressure being on its back. The Crimson Tide most likely won't begin the season as the No. 1 team in the country.
It's those kind of external factors, "noise" as Saban calls them, that won't be as big of issues as they've been in the past. In a sense, it's the first team since 2008 that Alabama won't be largely expected to win a national title.
It's the kind of challenge that drives Saban. It's a sort of "start over" for the program.
"When you start a program, you focus on the fundamental things that you feel are really important in the program, whether it's everybody buying into the principles and values of the team so that you can be a good team and everybody having a positive attitude about trying to accomplish the goals that you've established for the team, everybody being responsible for their own self-determination that they'll go do the things they need to do so they can do their job well, and the willingness to invest your time and have the discipline to do things at a high level on a consistent basis," Saban said. "If those are the fundamental things we want to accomplish, sometimes you do inventory and you say we've gotten away from that a little bit and maybe we need to get back to it.
"So maybe people need to be more accountable to it. Maybe they need to be more aware of it, whether it's coaches, players, myself, whoever is involved. So that's kind of what I meant by what I said when we got to that, when I made that statement, is we need to get back to the fundamental things that have made us a successful program through the years and everybody has got to trust and believe in those things so that they really know and believe that's what's going to help us be successful."
Reach Aaron Suttles at email@example.com or at 205-722-0229.
Reach Aaron Suttles at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205.722.0229.TideSports coverage on Facebook