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January 10, 2012

HURT: Repeating will take drive

The insatiable nature of the modern news cycle - and of college football fans - is never more apparent than at the end of every season. A champion is crowned, trophies are presented, a couple of eulogies are said for the season that has just passed - then it's a mad rush to welcome the Baby New Year of the upcoming season.

Tuesday in New Orleans was no different. Nick Saban picked up what seemed like a half-ton of hardware and Mal Moore sat alongside, no doubt calculating the cost of yet more trophy cases in the Mal Moore Athletic Facility. Display case expansion should probably be a line-item in the UA budget for at least as long as Saban sticks around.

But as much as the Alabama party enjoyed basking in the glow of a second BCS championship in three years, and might have wished for the celebration to continue for a few more days, that's just how much other teams get sick of hearing about it. Les Miles was already talking about his 2012 team before the players from the current LSU team had finished showering after the last game of the 2011 season.

Many media outlets were already making preseason top five, or even top 25, picks by Tuesday morning. Most included Alabama, although a few didn't, skeptical about the potential loss of Trent Richardson and a large percentage of college football's best defense of the past 20 years (at least).
The first thing to consider is that Alabama has the single most important returnee in college football: Saban. As far as personnel, especially on defense, some of the pending NFL draft decisions, like those of Jesse Williams and Robert Lester, will make a difference.

Regardless, next year's Alabama team will have less experience and proven talent than any year since at least 2008. "Proven talent" isn't the same thing as talent. That will still be there in abundance. But it will have to be molded by Saban and his staff, which includes Important Returnee No. 2 Kirby Smart on defense and a soon-to-be-named new offensive coordinator.

There is also the matter of being in the Southeastern Conference. No less than five SEC teams will have legitimate national championship aspirations: Alabama, LSU and Arkansas from the West, along with Georgia and South Carolina (if Marcus Lattimore returns at full speed) in the East. LSU is most people's choice as the preseason No. 1, but all five have reasons for optimism.

Here's a fun thought: Imagine a very possible change in the BCS system to the plus-one format. Then imagine that all four teams in the playoff were from the SEC - an undefeated champion and three one-loss runners-up. Heads would explode in every other region of the country, and what's even funnier is that it isn't entirely impossible.

Saban did look briefly ahead to the 2012 season Tuesday but didn't mention personnel. He talked about motivation.

"I think it's human nature to some degree to get satisfied with what you've accomplished," he said. "And that will not get you where you need to be. I think you need to have tremendous leadership and maturity on your team to be able to respond in the correct way, and that will certainly be a challenge for our group."

Alabama might not be the unanimous choice to meet that challenge again in 2012 - but it's hard to leave the Tide out of the equation.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil.hurt@tuscaloosanews.com or 205-722-0225.


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