- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It should have happened by now. Ten days into the start of fall camp, we should have seen Nick Saban get upset, express disappointment or simply flair his nostrils at the podium. Something he's said should have sent the red flag up on the University of Alabama's campus.
It's that time of year in Tuscaloosa. The temperatures are up, the humidity is unbearable and the stakes are high as the Crimson Tide work toward another national championship. In these conditions, it's hard to be pleasant. And for someone with Saban's critical nature, it's even harder to appear optimistic. He sees the flaws -- a missed block 10 yards away from the action, poor technique from a cornerback on an interception, anything or anyone not working at full potential -- where everyone else sees the spectacular -- a breakaway run down the sideline, an athletic takeaway from the defense, a field full of NFL talent.
So when Saban came in after the end of two-a-days last week and told the media, "I'm not disappointed in where our team is," it was reason to pause and reflect on exactly what that statement meant. It wasn't a compliment, but it was as close as he'll ever come. In fact, the words coming out of his mouth sounded like a billboard-sized sign to the rest of college football: look out because this team is good, darn good.
If Saban isn't disappointed with his players are in mid-August, imagine how disappointed opposing coaches will be when they face them come September.
The product on the field speaks for itself. AJ McCarron is a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender under center and T.J. Yeldon is a dark horse candidate for the same award at tailback. Amari Cooper is a future first-round pick and even he'd tell you that he's competing for reps in a wide receiving corps that goes nine deep. C.J. Mosley would have been an early-round selection in April's draft had he not returned to guide a defense that has routinely puts a handful of players in the NFL each year.
It's been easy to look at Alabama on the practice field and see a championship contender in recent years, but it's normally been difficult to listen to its head coach and hear the same message. Saban, approaching his 62nd birthday, doesn't fall victim to preseason hype. He sees rankings and cringes. When Alabama was put at the top spot in the USA Today coaches' poll, he said he'd address it just once.
"We appreciate the recognition," he said flatly. "We understand the reason that we have these things, to enhance the entertainment business. So you guys have something to talk about and write about. But the fact of the matter is, every team is doing exactly what we're doing right now."
Every year there's been something to prove or some obstacle to overcome for Alabama. Last season it was complacency. The disappointment of the 2010 season hung over Tuscaloosa like a shadow, a reminder of how difficult winning back-to-back national championships can be. Coaches and players beat back the demons then, but can they do it again?
Judging by Saban's mood, there's a possibility.
Following the Tide's first scrimmage on Saturday, Saban was almost enthusiastic, saying, "Overall, the first team on both sides of the ball looked pretty good, executed pretty well." He singled out some big plays from McCarron and Cooper and complimented the defensive line and the secondary, both potential trouble spots for the Tide. His one noticeable critique: the offensive line wasn't playing with the "power" he wanted.
"They've got room to grow," Saban said. "They've got room to improve. I think we've got the ability to develop. We need to get the right guys in the right spots. We've got to work 'em."
Before you think Saban might be worried, think again. Despite losing three starters, Saban has been mostly upbeat in his evaluation of the offensive line. In fact, a week ago Saban, hit the "I'm not disappointed in where we are" buzz phrase in reference to the position.
Of course, that pseudo applause came with a caveat.
"If we we're ready to play a first game, we wouldn't need 28 practices to get ready for it," he said in perfect coachspeak. "I think that would be true with every position on our team."
The point, however, was made. If the rest of college football was listening, they might read between the lines: If Saban isn't disappointed with his team now, there's no telling how good they'll be when the season begins.
6dEdward Aschoff and Alex Scarborough