- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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HOOVER, Ala. -- "We're 0-2," Amari Cooper said.
After last season's loss to Auburn and the blowout defeat to Oklahoma that followed, Alabama and its star receiver are looking at the start of the 2014 season in a different way: two games in the hole.
Cooper remembered the 99-yard touchdown he scored against Auburn last November. The pass from AJ McCarron to Cooper in the fourth quarter silenced the crowd at Jordan-Hare Stadium that night. McCarron had his "Heisman moment" and Cooper showed the world just how dangerous he can be. Auburn rocked on its heels, and Alabama had a trip to the SEC championship game all but reserved.
But Cooper doesn't remember the long touchdown against his rival fondly. There's too much pain attached to the moments that followed the play: Auburn's furious comeback, Chris Davis' last-second, 106-yard return for the game-winning score. Auburn went on to Atlanta. Alabama went home, settled for the Sugar Bowl and lost back-to-back games for the first time since 2008.
"I remember it ... but I really wish we would have won that game," Cooper said.
Alabama coach Nick Saban didn't spend much time talking about 2013 on Thursday. This year's trip to SEC media days was all about hitting the reset button.
No more AJ McCarron. No more C.J. Mosley. No more aura of invincibility for the Tide.
Alabama was picked by the media to win the SEC again this season -- garnering more points than all other teams combined -- but the cloud of inevitability was more transparent than in years past.
"Our situation as a team is a lot different this year than it's been the last couple years, when we were coming off of successful seasons, championship seasons," Saban said in his opening comments to the media inside the Hyatt's packed ballroom. "The challenges were so much different in terms of trying to deal with success and complacency.
"Having lost our last two games last year, I think it's a little bit different mindset with our players."
Half an hour earlier, in a more private setting, Saban acknowledged the amount of hurdles facing his team. With the opening of fall camp only weeks away, there are more than a handful of starting jobs still up for grabs.
"We're basically an unproven team in some areas," he said, "and in some cases it's at critical positions."
"We're a team that has a ton of questions," he continued later.
The question du jour (Will the Tide settle on transfer QB Jacob Coker?) will linger into the foreseeable future, as Saban insisted that no decision, no matter the outside perception, has been made about who will start under center.
"We really can't make that decision or prediction as to what's going to happen at that position," Saban said, "but the development of that position, regardless of who the player is, is going to be critical to the success of our team."
The good news for Saban is that he's not devoid of talent. With Cooper, tight end O.J. Howard and the two-headed monster of T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry at tailback, there's plenty of firepower on offense. As South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said earlier in the week, "They've got the greatest collection of football players ever assembled for a college team."
The bad news, though, is that the talent coming in is unproven at several other key spots. There's the potential for a true freshman to play at left tackle, and three-quarters of the starters in the secondary are gone.
Landon Collins was a preseason first-team All-SEC choice for a reason, but he can't do it alone at strong safety.
"The young guys are looking at me to show them the ropes," Collins said.
Two of those youngsters are true freshmen: Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey, both five-star prospects, have the potential to take significant reps at cornerback.
"They have impressed me," Collins said. "They're going to be phenomenal when it's their time. When it's time to showboat and do their thing, they're going to show you what they've been doing since high school."
The question is when their time will come.
Last season, Alabama relied heavily on a slew of inexperienced corners (Eddie Jackson, Maurice Smith, Cyrus Jones, Bradley Sylve) and the defense paid the price. Auburn was able to get a few big plays through the air, and then Oklahoma took it a step further when Trevor Knight transformed from an enigma into Peyton Manning in New Orleans, completing 32 of 44 passes for 348 yards and four touchdowns.
Alabama wasn't Alabama those final two games last season. The offense became inconsistent, the defense struggled and special teams came up just short.
Until the 2014 season kicks off, there's a big 0-2 record hanging around the team's collective neck.
Until Alabama gets back to playing Alabama football, players feel as if they're in the hole.
"I think it's a little bit of a different mindset with our players," Saban said.
For Cooper, it's almost a welcomed change. Winning championships inevitably breeds complacency. Losing back-to-back games and then having to answer all the questions that follow is simply fuel for the fire.
"When you have people doubting you, you're automatically hungry," he said. "You want to work hard just to prove them wrong."
6dEdward Aschoff and Alex Scarborough