With a week remaining in spring practice for the University of Alabama football team, Nick Saban has tipped his hand about the theme for 2012: "Improvement."
Saban rarely proceeds into a season, or even a single game, without a clear, defining thought process, one that imparts to the team, the media and everyone else within listening distance. "Improvement" may seem like a simple one - after all, what else is spring training about? - but it is one with particular resonance for this team, for a couple of reasons.
First, the returning players - in other words, the entire spring roster except for a few early arriving signees - were the beneficiaries of in-season improvement a year ago. What else could you call it, when Alabama lost to LSU at home in November and hammered the Tigers in New Orleans two months later? It was the closest thing college football can offer to a laboratory-controlled experiment, a second test against the same opposition.
Perhaps even more revealing were Saban's comments last week about the 2010 team. They came, ironically, at a point when Saban was rankled about comparing the 2012 team to the 2010 team, unhappy at attempts to compare two different teams even though they are in the same situation, coming off a BCS championship season.
"Everybody has to take a collective responsibility to improve," Saban said. "There are teams that improve. In 2009, Florida was No. 1 (and) people thought they were unbeatable. But we improved.
"The next year, we didn't improve. People ask me how we lost three games that year and my answer is that we didn't improve."
With hindsight, that's obvious. A mere glimpse at the schedule shows the same mistakes were being made in late-season 2010 losses to LSU and Auburn that were made earlier in the year, and while the bowl game blowout of Michigan State served as something of a palate cleanser, it didn't wash out all the disappointment Crimson Tide fans felt that year.
"We lost a whole lot of good players from the 2009 team," Saban continued. "We lost 15 starters and 26 seniors and everyone still thought we would end up with the same team, that nothing ever changes.
"This team is completely different than the 2011 team, just like the 2010 team was completely different than the 2009 team."
So the message for anyone coming to A-Day next Saturday is clear: Don't expect it to be a continuing celebration. Look for improvement, not affirmation.
Saban wasn't specific about the ways in which the 2010 team failed to get better. One might assume a championship hangover, or what Anthony Grant, in a different context, called "a sense of entitlement." One might go on to guess the issue started to manifest itself in the spring, explaining Saban's current emphasis on not letting it happen again, on praising the team as "improving" when practice went well, or summarizing a poor practice with "I don't think we improved."
What's more, while Saban spoke after Friday's scrimmage about building depth, the real improvement has to come from the team's star players (another gloss to 2010 might work here). AJ McCarron, the catalyst in last season's November-to-January improvement, needs to take another step up. Jesse Williams, D.J. Fluker and others are apparently doing the same, but have to continue.
"I don't think it's always realistic to think you are going to reload," Saban said. "But you can improve."
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.