As the football season officially begins at the University of Alabama today, the practice sessions commencing in the August heat, there will be all sorts of specific questions to be addressed, the usual list of particulars ranging from which freshmen look good to which players can replace this or that departed NFL first-rounder on defense.
But all those small questions are only parts of a larger question, one that might not be articulated in just this one - not directly to Nick Saban, anyway - but one that will hover over this month and probably last well into the season.
Can Alabama do it again?
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The two national titles in three years is isn't unprecedented at Alabama, which won consecutive crowns in 1964 and 1966 and again in 1978 and 1979. But in those eras, too, expectations were astronomical.
Of all the games Alabama has lost in the last 50 years, I have not seen one that generated more utter disbelief among Crimson Tide fans than the 1980 loss to Mississippi State in Jackson. At that time, such a loss seemed to violate universal laws. Water might as well have flowed uphill.
I am not quite sure Nick Saban faces quite such expectations today - he certainly does his best to defuse them with realism. But it is close.
The fact Alabama has won so consistently (45-6) over a four-year period makes that the case. There are essentially no players left from the 2008 team that posted an unbeaten regular season, except for a couple of redshirts. There are a few contributors left from the 2009 BCS winners, but not many. If you go back to 2008, Alabama is two quarterbacks removed (Wilson to McElroy to McCarron), two feature running backs removed and so forth. The constants has been coaching and recruiting. Especially coaching.
That, more than any detailed roster analysis, is why Alabama was No. 2 in the coaches' poll that came out on Thursday. Saban, asked about the ranking, said "no one knows who the best teams are, that's why we play the games," which is perfectly true. But when you have won 45 out of the last 50 games, people do come to have expectations.
The irony is this. The correct answer to the question "can Alabama do it again?" is "not if they are worried about it in August." The whole key to success is not to look ahead, not to try and leapfrog whole sections of the schedule.
At this point, it isn't even to focus on Michigan, the first opponent. It is to spend a couple of weeks in the grueling heat on self-improvement and team chemistry, things that have to be developed now if they are going to be useful later.
A third title in five years wouldn't quite be unprecedented at Alabama - is there any history to be made in Tuscaloosa that hasn't been made before? But it would secure this current era as a "dynasty" (if it isn't one already), like Nebraska in the mid-90's or Miami in a couple of different stretches over the last 30 years.
Can Alabama attain that?
Only if it doesn't pay any attention to the big question and painstakingly addresses all those little ones.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.