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December 22, 2012

Tide no stranger to playing on big stage

TUSCALOOSA | The 2012 University of Alabama football team has never been to Miami Gardens, Fla., home to Sun Life Stadium and the BCS National Championship Game.

This edition has never played Notre Dame before. Alabama has, however, been here before.

Here as in preparing to play for the Bowl Championship Series national title.

Here as in navigating the layoff of more than a month before playing the biggest game of the season.

For the third time in four seasons, the Crimson Tide is going through the process of getting ready to play for the national title. To Alabama players, it has become a familiar routine. UA coach Nick Saban has perfected that process, having won three national championships in his coaching career, and UA players believe having been through it before gives them an edge.

"The way Coach Saban puts it out there, I think it works. It's been working well for us in the past and we're going to keep doing it," senior tight end Michael Williams said.

It starts with what is, essentially, a second version of preseason camp, a rerun of the start of August practice - because that, more than anything, is what the first week of bowl preparation was like. Alabama started practice last Tuesday for its national title showdown with Notre Dame and worked through Saturday. UA players will have a three-day break before returning to campus to enter the next phase of practice.

"It's good to get back into the regular flow of things, get started on the fundamentals, just like we started back in camp. It's just like starting all over again, it's like a one-game season," Williams said.

If you didn't know, preseason camp wouldn't win a popularity poll with players. It is hard and physical, viewed more as a necessity than a joy.

"We understand, going through it last year, how important this week is by itself," senior linebacker Nico Johnson said. "We took it and ran with it and had a good week of practice."

The first week was an exercise in fundamentals - blocking and tackling basics. And while it didn't involve full-on tackling, it serves the purpose of getting players used to hitting and being hit.

"I think it's very important because either coming off the last game of the season (like in 2011) or the SEC championship (game) it's a long time since you've played a game or since you've tackled somebody, so the way we do it I feel like is good because you get to feeling contact," Williams said. "You're not just out there running around and tagging off or something like that. The way we do it, I feel like that contact you have to learn to absorb again - that's why it's like a one-game season."

The next phase, post-Christmas, will involve installation of the game plan until the team departs Jan. 2 for Miami. The final phase will be practices in South Florida.

To veteran Crimson Tide players, there's no difference between Miami, New Orleans (where UA won last year's national championship) and Pasadena, Calif. (site of the 2009 national title game). They will spend far more time in the team hotel and practicing than they will exploring the host city.

After all, wherever the game is played, they've been here before.

"It doesn't matter," Williams said. "We don't do too much anyway. We have our team functions and you have a curfew every night and it's not too much different no matter where you go. Every one I've been to it's almost the same thing every time.

"You're there for one reason. You don't want to be there to party anyway. You go to Miami and you do your job."

Once the game started, Alabama's upperclassmen will have the comfort of having played on the big stage before - in national championship games, this year's Southeastern Conference title game, in highly-hyped regular-season games against LSU the last two seasons.

"I don't think will have that much anxiety about the game," Johnson said. "We'll be able to treat it as another game and go in calm and focused in more on what we have to do.

"And I think we understand what we have to do to win a national championship and we're going to have to do it even more than the first two times because Notre Dame is a danged good team. We're going to have to play our butts off for 60 minutes."

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Reach Tommy Deas at tommy@tidesports.com or at 205-722-0224.



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