Alabama begins quest for three straight titles

Ben Cook

March 18, 2013 at 1:39 pm.

AJ McCarron is back to lead an Alabama program that is in pursuit of its third national title. (Derick E. Hingle-US PRESSWIRE)

The Alabama Crimson Tide opened spring football drills last Saturday with a unique opportunity as a goal for the season.

Historians will tell you that Alabama is reaching for a brass ring that has eluded it in the three other opportunities it had to grab it in its long and storied football history. It had a chance in 1927, 1966 and again in 1980 but couldn’t bring home the prize.

That is the goal for the 2013 Crimson Tide.

When Alabama destroyed Notre Dame in January to win its second consecutive national title and third in four seasons, it threw the 2013 Crimson Tide into another even bigger title chase. Alabama will not only have to contend with a tough Southeastern Conference schedule in 2013, along with a whole nation of would-be Crystal Football winners, but it will go face-to-face with history. Since Mark Ingram brought Alabama a Heisman Trophy in 2009, winning three national championships in a row is about the only thing Alabama has not done in football — and it has had three previous opportunities.

Alabama won national championships under Wallace Wade in 1925 and ’26 but came up short when it tried to make in three in a row. The Crimson Tide finished 5-4-1 in 1927.

It was in position to go for three in a row 39 years later underAlabamaicon Paul “Bear” Bryant. After winning the 1964 title and repeating in 1965, Alabama had arguably one of its best teams ever in 1966. It finished the season 11-0 after a 34-7 win over Nebraska in the Sugar Bowl. But the pollsters refused to accommodate the Crimson Tide and despite the perfect season, Alabama finished ranked third behind Notre Dame and Michigan State, two teams that battled to a 10-10 tie in the regular season.

The Tide had one last chance to win three national titles in a row in 1980, following 1978 and ’79 national title runs under Bryant. But Alabama stumbled to a 9-2-1 record in ’80, which signaled the twilight of Bryant’s career.

Now 33 years after its last chance to join Army in the 1940s, Oklahoma in the 1950s, Texas in the 1960s, Miami in the 1980s and Nebraska in the 1990s with three national championships in a row, Alabama has that chance this fall.

That is what is on the line for Nick Saban’s seventh Crimson Tide edition that took to the Thomas–Drew practice fields Saturday.

“The main objective to me for spring practice is to focus on player improvement,” Saban said. “Whether it is what a player needs to be able to do, the technique of how he should do it and to have an understanding conceptually of why it is important to do it that way.

“In the spring you don’t have game plans. You don’t have to change what you are doing and it is an opportunity for everyone to know our offense, our defense and our special teams—and to understand what is expected of them. I think it is also a time that a player needs to learn how to practice.

“Everybody has got to be able to perform,” Saban said. “I don’t care what your circumstances are.  I don’t care what issues, what problems you have, whether you are coming off of being hurt, whether you had a bad day academically or whatever. You’ve still got to show you are dependable and can go out there and perform.

“That’s a part of mental toughness, of focus that every player has to prove that he can do and each player should evaluate that for himself every day. What kind of effort did I give today? Was I dependable today? How many mental errors did I have today? Was I able to play with the right technique? If I didn’t do it, I should be able to look at the film and progress and improve. That’s the number one thing we will try to accomplish,” the Tide coach said.

“Every year you’ve got to reinvent your team. Who are going to be the leaders? Who will be the guys to set an example?”

Alabama has to replace some key personnel off the 2012 team, including team leader Barrett Jones, who was one of 12 NFL draft-eligible players who worked out on Alabama’s Pro Day March 13.

Alabama’s 2013 team returns six starters on offense, led by quarterback AJ McCarron, who was a third-team Associated Press All-American in 2012. Many believe McCarron is a sleeper candidate for the Heisman Trophy, and why not? He is the only starting quarterback in the country with a national championship on his resume.

“I think AJ’s leadership is critical to our team,” Saban said. “He’s a good leader and he has to assert himself as that. I think the players like AJ. I think the players respect AJ and the more he does things the right way the more he’s going to be able to affect other people. I’ve always been pleased with him in the past and I can’t see any reason why it should not be a real positive for him in the future.”

McCarron will have plenty of his favorite targets back in wide receivers Amari Cooper, Kevin Norwood and Christion Jones. The Tide took heavy losses to its top-rated offensive line, but two starters — left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and right guard Anthony Steen — return.

On defense, the Tide returns seven starters, led by Butkus Award finalist and consensus All-American C.J. Mosley leading the linebacker corps. Other defensive starters back include linebackers Adrian Hubbard, Trey Depriest, Xzavier Dickson, defensive end Ed Stinson, cornerback Deion Belue and safety HaHa Clinton-Dix.

There were new faces on the practice field as nine mid-year enrollees participated in their first practice. But all the new faces were not in shoulder pads and helmets. Three new coaches — secondary coach Greg Brown, assistant head coach and offensive line coach Mario Cristobal and wide receivers coach Billy Napier — also made their debuts.

The A-Day game, which will again be televised by ESPN, is set for April 20 at 2 p.m.