NCF Nation: Alabama Crimson Tide

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It didn’t take long for the sickening feeling to seep out of Landon Collins’ stomach and circulate through his body.

On the way back to Tuscaloosa after Alabama’s humbling 45-31 loss to Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, the junior safety replayed the nauseating moments from a game in which the Crimson Tide, which entered the contest with the SEC’s top-ranked defense, surrendered 429 yards of offense, nearly 6 yards per play, 348 passing yards and four passing touchdowns.

Collins called the performance by the defense “disgraceful” to Alabama football.

“We weren’t the defense that we always used to be,” Collins told ESPN.com in early April. “That’s what we’re working on this spring.”

[+] EnlargeLandon Collins
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsAfter a less-than-stellar performance in its bowl loss to Oklahoma, Landon Collins expects Alabama's defense to play with a chip on its shoulder in 2014.
If Alabama is going to make it back to the national championship, Collins said the defense has to improve. During Alabama’s two-year BCS title run (2011-12), the Tide finished first nationally in total and scoring defense in both seasons. Last season, Alabama finished in the top five in both categories, but that final game serves as a harsh reminder of the defense's flaws.

Associating Alabama’s defense with anything less than elite feels awkward, but that’s all you can say about Bama’s bowl performance. Players were tired and run down against Oklahoma’s hurry-up offense. This spring, Tide defenders saw red, as coaches constantly reminded them of that bowl performance. That led to tougher conditioning routines and more intense player interaction on and off the field, Collins said.

Looking back at the bowl game has been tough for players, but they know that it’s a performance they never want to see again.

“It wasn’t the way we play,” linebacker Trey DePriest said. “We don’t get that many points put up on us. That’s way more than what our goal is -- 13 points or less. It didn’t seem like us. We were ready, we just didn’t go out and leave it on the field like it was our last game. It’s definitely been a driving force.”

But things won’t be easier in 2014, not with a younger defensive look and the loss of leaders -- and producers -- like C.J. Mosley and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Collins and DePriest, picked to replace those two, now head a defense that will be playing angry in 2014 after losing five starters from last season's team.

Can guys like Nick Perry, Denzel Devall, Xzavier Dickson, A'Shawn Robinson and Jarrick Williams expand their roles? Can some of the youngsters like Tony Brown and Laurence "Hootie" Jones step up? And don't forget about the much-anticipated arrival of defensive end Da'Shawn Hand.

There's no shortage of talent, and this defense might even have a little more athleticism sprinkled around, but we all know talent can only go so far, even with the best teams.

For now, attitudes seem to be flowing in the right direction, DePriest said, but there’s no getting around the fact that this entire defense has to grow up in the coming months to replace some valuable leaders.

“It’s some big shoes to fill, definitely,” Collins said. “A lot of us looked up to those guys. Without that leadership, we have to just step in and take over because we need that on the field constantly, and [we need it] off the field because without that, this program could go in a different direction that it doesn’t need to.”

There’s a certain pride that this defense holds that it lost in that bowl game.

Or was it something that slowly trickled out before the Tide even got to Bourbon Street?

Alabama had holes in its defense all last fall, but found ways of patching them as the season went on. Alabama surrendered a school-record 628 yards in a 49-42 win over Texas A&M, allowed Zach Mettenberger to throw for 241 yards in the win over LSU and watched Auburn rush for 296 yards in that heartbreaking loss on the Plains.

Hundreds of other teams would kill for Alabama’s 2013 defense, but it didn’t live up to the standards this program holds so dear.

For Collins, the secondary is key. While Alabama ranked near the top nationally against the pass, there were times when the secondary surrendered too many big plays. Injuries contributed to some of the secondary’s issues, but the last line of defense never truly looked settled last season.

Collins said the secondary put too much pressure on itself to live up to the enormous preseason hype after back-to-back BCS titles and wasn’t always prepared for games.

“Our downfall was our secondary last year,” Collins said. “We got picked apart because of that.”

“If you watch our film of practice, you can see how hard we work every day. You can tell how hard we’re working to establish our secondary to be dominant again.”

Spring practice can only take a team so far, and Alabama defenders know that. They have that chip, they have that anger, but it’s about carrying that feeling over to the season and performing.

The good thing for the defense is that it has a constant reminder in the bowl game that still fuels this unit.

“That just fires it up, because we know what type of defense we are,” Collins said. “We already know what we are capable of. Just to hear that we got picked apart by an offense that shouldn’t have been on the field with us, that’s a disgrace to Alabama defense. We need to pick it up from that standpoint.”
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- “Man, your boy looked good in the Sugar Bowl,” they tell Bobby Ramsay.

Ramsay has heard that phrase, he said, about 150 times since January. He’s heard it from fans around town in Yulee, Fla. He’s heard it from fellow high school coaches at clinics. He’s heard it from college coaches who have stopped through scouting talent.

If Ramsay turned on the radio, flipped on the TV or simply walked the streets here in Tuscaloosa, he’d hear about his former running back even more. In fact, he might be overwhelmed by the number of people saying how good Derrick Henry looked for Alabama in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma: 161 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns. When Henry broke his 43-yard touchdown run the fourth quarter, Ramsay said he received something like 18 text messages in under 30 seconds.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Henry
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsDerrick Henry's breakout performance in the Sugar Bowl changed everything for the Alabama running back, but Henry is just focused on getting better.
It’s easy to see why people got excited. The run had the look of a seminal moment for the former five-star athlete who set the national career rushing yards record at Yulee High. The 6-foot-3, 243-pound talent finally showed on a national stage why he was so highly sought after. After carrying the ball minimally throughout the regular season, he blew people away in the bowl game.

All told, Henry ran for 382 yards and three touchdowns as a true freshman. And now? Despite being the backup to T.J. Yeldon, he's listed on the sports betting website Bovada as 28-to-1 to win the Heisman Trophy, ahead of Dak Prescott, Duke Johnson and Myles Jack.

Too big? Please

It’s almost laughable to think about it now, but for a long time people questioned whether Henry was cut out to be a running back. He was too big, they thought, too bulky to fit through running lanes. He was too tall to have the proper pad level.

And then there was the Sugar Bowl.

Somewhere in Yulee, Ramsay smiled. What he’d seen in high school and what he saw in bits and pieces throughout the season was showing up on a much larger, unavoidable scale: Henry was meant to play running back.

“I told some people, ‘Man, that looked just like high school. Those DBs didn’t want to tackle him any more than the DBs who played here,’” Ramsay said. “The first touchdown he scored, I was joking, ‘That kid from Oklahoma, he’s running with Derrick so he won’t get yelled at when he goes back to the bench.’ He wasn’t going to try and get him on the ground.”

No one wants to tackle Henry, not even his teammates.

Tide linebacker Reggie Ragland, no slouch at 6-2 and 259 pounds, described his meetings with Henry during practice as both “mean” and “peaceful” because they can’t take one another to the ground.

“He's a big guy,” he said of Henry. “A lot of people are scared to tackle him.”

Said Henry: “During the Oklahoma game, I could tell that they didn't want to tackle me. I just kept the mindset of being physical and keep running hard so everything will open up.”

Growing pains

Henry says one of his goals is to be a starter, but for now he’s “focused on getting better and becoming a complete player.”

Dobbs Not getting that much playing time really taught me a lot. It humbled me. Everything isn't just going to come to you. You have to work for it.

-- Alabama RB Derrick Henry
A year ago that might not have been the case.

Like most blue-chip recruits, Henry first had to deal with reality. Though his talent was undeniable, there were things he hadn’t yet mastered. At Yulee High, he didn’t have to block, pass protect or catch passes out of the backfield. Ramsay only needed him to run the ball. But at Alabama, he wouldn’t see the field until he could do it all.

“Not getting that much playing time really taught me a lot,” Henry said. There wasn’t a game during the regular season where he carried the ball more than six times. “It humbled me. Everything isn't just going to come to you. You have to work for it. You have to take time. This is college football so it's more technique. You have to put more effort into by watching film and really paying attention to the little things”

Saban said the light came on for Henry in the lead up to the Sugar Bowl. Like a lot of freshman, the chance for extra practice time paid off.

Now he’s taking that momentum and running with it.

"Derrick Henry has had a fabulous spring," Saban said on Wednesday. "He picked up right where he left off at bowl practice last year. He works really hard. He runs really hard. He plays with a lot of toughness. He gets it."

Everything has changed, nothing has changed

In a way, Henry is built to be the center of attention. At Yulee High, he was the biggest thing going. As early as the ninth grade, Ramsay said, “They could play football for 500 years in our county and there’s going to be no one better than him.”

“I think it’s helping him now,” Ramsay said. “They protected him from that as a freshman. Now he’s going to have a little more on his plate. … It’s crazy because he hasn’t played a ton but I’ve got people from Alabama, and these are people who have been around the program for years, who have said they haven’t ever seen a guy with this much popularity.

“In a town where every other street is named after Paul Bryant, for someone to say that is big.”

Has Henry changed? Not according to Ramsay: “Nothing. Same guy. Nothing different.”

“Offseason has been good,” Henry said in the most understated way possible. “Coming back from the Sugar Bowl and getting back to lifting weights and doing 4th Quarter [Program], it's been going well. Just trying to get better.”

That simple, singular focus will suit him well. As spring practice wraps up and the march toward the regular season intensifies, so will the scrutiny.

What will aid him most will be his work ethic, the same determination that helped him get through the lows of last season and reach the high of the Sugar Bowl.

“Right now he’s in a very comfortable place,” Ramsay said. “Initially all freshmen go through the process of being in a new place and having a new way of doing things. One thing with Derrick is he’s never let it affect his effort level. ... Every time I talked to [running backs coach Burton Burns] about it, he’d say, ‘Oh man, We want all the guys to be like Derrick. He’s pulling G.A.’s aside to work on things extra after practice, he’s getting extra film work.’”

A moment later, Ramsay put an exclamation point on the subject.

“He’s not expecting to have rose pedals thrown at his feet,” he said of Henry.

Ramsay’s boy looked awfully good in one game, but both he and Henry understand that last season was only the first step. What comes next is a whole different set of challenges.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Score scrimmage No. 1 in favor of Blake Sims.

Yes, he’s something of a work in progress at quarterback. And, yes, it’s fair to say that his skill set doesn’t quite fit what Alabama and coach Nick Saban typically do on offense. But when it came down to proving it on the football field Saturday, Sims did exactly that, completing a team-high 16 of 23 passes for 227 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.

[+] EnlargeBlake Sims
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsBlake Sims has accounted for just 244 passing yards in his Alabama career.
Considering only two touchdowns were thrown during the two-hour scrimmage, that’s saying something. His 70 percent completion percentage, no matter how you slice it, is promising, considering his career average is less than 59 percent.

So maybe, just maybe, we’re seeing Sims mature as a quarterback. He’s still a 6-foot former running back and wide receiver with a sometimes awkward throwing motion, but until he’s officially out of the race to replace AJ McCarron, there’s no counting him out. He’s easily the most experienced option and the most dangerous with the football in his hands.

“There are two plays with Blake: the one they call on offense and then when that one doesn't go right, it's the one he makes with his feet,” senior safety Nick Perry said. “We've seen that in college football and even in the NFL with players like Robert Griffin III and Johnny Manziel. He's a dangerous player.”

RG3 and Johnny Football, Sims is not. Put simply, he’s a senior hoping that opportunity and maturity converge at the perfect moment.

Alabama coaches know what Sims can do running the football. All told, he’s carried the ball 67 times for 355 yards and two touchdowns in his career. The real question, though, is whether he can stay in the pocket, set his feet and read a defense. He has a history of being erratic throwing the football, but has that improved with time and the added motivation of competition? Saturday’s scrimmage seemed to indicate a move in a positive direction.

Saban didn’t say much about the play of each quarterback, but he did note that Sims has had a “really good spring” and has “taken some command.”

But the job isn’t guaranteed to anyone. Along with Sims, Alec Morris and Cooper Bateman are in the mix.

“Those three guys have sort of emerged as the three guys that look like they’re most ready to play,” Saban said. “Nobody’s disappointed in anybody else. We actually feel like our freshman (David Cornwell), who is coming off of an injury, has a lot of potential. He’s just not 100 percent healthy yet.

“So we’re pleased with the progress those guys have made.”

Sims is clearly doing everything he can to separate himself. Instead of going to the beach and relaxing during spring break last week, he went to Florida and trained with quarterback coach Ken Mastrole.

The two worked on technical aspects like footwork, being on time with the football and reading coverages, Sims said, but it went beyond that. As much as he wants to improve as a passer, he’s hoping to become more of a leader as well.

“[Mastrole] was a quarterback, so he gave me the knowledge of how to pick up your teammates and go at them so you’re not a nagging quarterback,” Sims said. “You’re supposed to be a motivation and keep them positive and keep a great mindset with them.”

In other words, Sims isn’t letting the heat of competition get to him. When asked about soon-to-be Florida State transfer Jacob Coker, Sims said he loved his personality and looked forward to welcoming him "with open arms."

“We're not thinking about the battle against each other,” Sims said. “We're just trying to think of how we can make Bama the best way they can be, and how can we have good communication with the players if we're with the ones or we're with the twos or with the threes. We're just trying to play harder and make each group better.”

Of course, Sims isn’t getting ahead of himself, but admitted, “It’s very fun to see where your ability can take you in life.”

“It would be nice,” said Sims of potentially being named the starter. “It would be nice for me and I think I would like it. Watching AJ do the great thing that he did at the University of Alabama -- if I am the one that’s chosen to be the quarterback at Alabama, I’d like to keep it going.”

He might be the more unorthodox option, but if Sims keeps playing like he did Saturday and continues improving as a passer, he'll have a shot to do just that. The competition won't be decided until the fall, but Sims is off to the right start.
Brandon Allen. Nick Marshall. Bo Wallace.

That’s it. That’s the list.

Only three quarterbacks who started double-digit games last season return to the SEC this fall, and one of them isn’t even guaranteed to be a starter.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLes Miles and Nick Saban are in no hurry to name their starting QBs for the fall.
Everywhere you turn in this league, there’s a quarterback competition underway, from Alabama to Georgia, Arkansas to Kentucky, LSU to Texas A&M. Maty Mauk is surely the presumptive starter at Missouri, but even he's not a sure thing. Gary Pinkel says he wants competition, never mind that there were times when Mauk looked better than former starter James Franklin.

But not every coach in the SEC approaches the quarterback position the same way. A quick glance across the league shows a variety of opinions about how to pick a starter.

Mark Stoops is the most urgent-minded coach of the bunch, and given the inconsistency Kentucky had at quarterback last season, it’s easy to understand why. Entering his second season, Stoops said: “I’d love to come out of spring with a clear-cut starter.” That means everyone is in the mix. Maxwell Smith can’t practice while he recovers from shoulder surgery, but Jalen Whitlow, Reese Phillips, Patrick Towles and even true freshman Drew Barker are in the hunt.

Barker, a four-star prospect according to ESPN, “has a very good opportunity to take control of it,” Stoops said, praising his maturity for such a young quarterback.

“He’s a guy [who] has high expectations [for] himself, and he’s OK with the pressure that comes along with playing that position,” Stoops said. “He’s excited about the opportunity, and I’m excited to see what he can do.”

Bret Bielema isn’t outwardly putting a timetable on anything at Arkansas, but he’s encouraging everyone to compete. Allen started 11 games last season but was up and down, with 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Bielema was about as no-nonsense as any coach gets about the situation.

“In theory, the first time we yell out for the [first string, Allen is] going to step out there,” Bielema said before the start of spring practice. “But really, in our program, the competition brings the best out of people.

“So B.A. is going to be the first guy in with the ones, but there will be other guys who get opportunity,” he continued. “Who is able to produce and run the offense effectively and who gives us the best chance to win next year’s opener against Auburn will be at that position.”

Similar to the case at Kentucky, Bielema isn’t counting out his true freshman. Rafe Peavey, another highly-regarded four-star prospect, is going to be allowed to sink or swim. Bielema loves his talent and praised him as a “football junkie.” But he’s not pampering the rookie.

“It’s no different between the right tackle or the quarterback or the safety,” Bielema said. “It’s all about what a freshman can handle, how they adjust to adversity and how they enjoy success.

“The quarterback gets a lot of attention. They’re usually really pretty, really smart, and everybody likes them. But in reality, they’re like everybody else. Those that play well will play and those that don’t will sit.”

While Bielema and Stoops are anxious for a battle, other coaches around the league are more inclined to sit back and wait.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
AP Photo/David J. PhillipWho will replace Johnny Manziel as Texas A&M's QB? Kevin Sumlin isn't saying anything right now.
LSU coach Les Miles said he has a good sense of the competition between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris. “But it always plays out,” he said, harkening back to when Matt Flynn and JaMarcus Russell duked it out eight years ago. It looked like Flynn had the job in hand after winning a bowl game and watching Russell come into camp out of shape in 2006. But Flynn's body faltered down the stretch and Russell kept going, eventually winning the job.

"I want all the quarterbacks to know that it’s going to be given to no one,” Miles said. “[It’s] earned by the one that plays."

Texas A&M and Alabama are taking similar approaches to replacing Johnny Manziel and AJ McCarron. In fact, both Kevin Sumlin and Nick Saban are somewhat defiant about holding the cards close to the vest.

Sumlin has gloated before that when people assumed Jameill Showers would beat out Manziel in 2013, "I didn't name a starter [after spring]; y'all did."

So while we watch Matt Joeckel, Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen jockey for position, don’t expect a starter to be named until close to the season.

Saban, for his part, doesn’t want to hear anything about it. His quarterback competition is essentially on hold until the fall, when Florida State transfer Jacob Coker arrives. Before the start of spring practice, Saban laid out his plan, saying, “Let me be very clear about this: We’re not going to be in a hurry to decide who the quarterback is.”

“You guys are going to ask me at least 1,000 times between now and the first game who's the first-team quarterback,” he added, “and I'm telling you right now you're probably going to get a 1,000 'We're going to wait and see.’ ”

The only place in the SEC that doesn’t have to be patient in the matter is South Carolina. Coach Steve Spurrier named Dylan Thompson the starter well before spring practice ever began.

Replacing Connor Shaw won’t be easy, but Spurrier said that Thompson was the guy for the job, no question. A fifth-year senior with plenty of in-game experience, Spurrier didn’t have a doubt in his mind.

“I didn’t know there was any question about it,” he said. “Someone said, ‘You’re just naming him the starting quarterback?’ Well, I just said, ‘Of course I am. Why wouldn’t we?’ ”

Spurrier did it his way. Saban and Sumlin are doing it theirs. Stoops is anxious, and Bielema and Pinkel are only interested in the competition.

Recruiting a quarterback is the furthest thing from an exact science. Finding out who’s ready to start is even more inexact.

This might be the season of new quarterbacks in the SEC, but everywhere there’s a different sense of which way the wind blows.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It started out innocently enough as Alabama coach Nick Saban ribbed the media on Monday about returning from spring break. He acted surprised when one reporter said she didn't take the time off, noting sarcastically how, "You really appreciate them when you work hard."

The jab was obvious as he gave a sly look around the room as if to say that hard work was a foreign concept to the press. One writer quipped, "Why are you looking down here?"

A smirk from Saban: "I don't know. I'm wondering."

The playful mood lasted a hiccup longer and then it was back to business as Saban said how his players were starting to worry too much about the depth chart, followed by a news flash: “We really don’t have a depth chart.”

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin Liles/USA TODAY SportsFighting expectations and speculation during spring practice is nothing new to Nick Saban.
Later on came the question that really set him off.

Saban can talk about X’s and O's all day. The problem is there’s hardly anything concrete about spring practice. There’s no game film, no stat book, no players of the week. Without a depth chart, there’s only who’s getting better and who’s getting worse. And without results, that’s a matter of opinion.

But Saban isn’t fond of conjecture. He’s even less fond of appearances, apparently.

“What does appear mean?” Saban said, responding to a question about the perceived depth of his defensive line. “It just means you’ve dreamed about it and it’s there?”

A quick clarification before he fired back: “What it looks like on paper? We’ve never seen these guys play or seen them take on an SEC lineman. But it appears.”

He continued, putting a point on the matter: “That’s how we form public opinion because something appears to be that way and everyone believes it.”

Such was a sneak peek into the mind of Saban. There’s no room in there for what could be. There’s a standard he’s trying to uphold and anything that takes him away from that -- say, speculation -- isn’t tolerated.

It’s an odd conundrum to have a program that loathes appearances while at the same time being such an object of speculation. It’s like a celebrity shunning the paparazzi. You want to avoid them but they’re always there.

Alabama is nonetheless wrought with pressure from the outside. Inside the bubble of the football offices it’s all business, but everywhere around there’s immense expectations and boundless conjecture about wins, losses, championships and future stars.

Saban might claim to not have a depth chart, but every day is a constant battle for fans to determine who the starters will be on a team that loses two starting offensive linemen, two veteran receivers, two high-profile linebackers and three key contributors in the secondary. Oh, and there’s also the small matter of AJ McCarron leaving a vacancy at starting quarterback -- just don’t ask Saban about that race because he’ll tell you to hold your horses and be patient.

Take for instance the question about the defensive line. Saban might not see his group in a good light today, but when you look at the depth Alabama has up front on defense, it’s scary. A’Shawn Robinson was one of the most impressive rookies in the SEC last season. He’s joined by Jonathan Allen, another true freshman who was promising off the bench. Brandon Ivory is back at nose guard, Darren Lake returns as his backup and there are a number of options to bring in the rotation around them. Dalvin Tomlinson, when healthy, has the potential to be a game changer. And we haven’t even mentioned the return of former Freshman All-SEC choice D.J. Pettway and the eventual arrival of five-star Da’Shawn Hand.

List those names all you want, just don’t expect Saban to sing their praise. It’s simply not his way to buy into the hype.

“I’m not satisfied with the way any of them are playing, if you want to know the truth about it," Saban said of his D-line. "They’ve got to be more aggressive, physical, play with better leverage, hold the point better, rush the passer better. I didn’t think that last year was one of our best years up front, and even though we have a couple new players competing and Dalvin Tomlinson back, I think all of them have a ways to go. A’Shawn Robinson has a lot of ability, but I think we need to get him in shape and he’s got to play with better focus and intensity down in and down out to be more consistent.

"So defensively we have a ways to go to improve to get back to the level and our standard of what we like to play here.”

Though sometimes it feels like Saban is constantly fighting with reporters, he’s not. The speculation extends far beyond the walls of the media room and the pages of newspapers. It’s all the talk that drives Saban nuts because it has a way of reaching his players, inflating their egos long before they’ve earned their stripes. Remember Saban’s comment about the depth chart? That came unsolicited, a direct shot at his team one floor below in the locker room.

What Saban is fighting is the standard. While others are taking time off, he’s busy worrying about the next move, not the next question about how things appear.

How it looks on paper? He’d rather see how it looks with his eyes, and then he’ll get back to you.
AUBURN, Ala. -- There wasn’t much fire in the voice of Gus Malzahn as he stood at the podium following Auburn’s first scrimmage of the spring on Saturday. All told, it was a pretty boring scene. No injuries to report. No position changes to speak of. Only one turnover and a handful of big plays. His team had to move indoors because of the threat of rain, but as he said, “It didn’t bother us a bit.”

Watching Malzahn, you got the feeling he wasn’t playing coy. This was the difference a year makes. Last spring was an anxious time for Auburn. There was no quarterback, no depth chart and no sense of expectations. Malzahn and Co. were simply trying to pick up the pieces left behind from the previous staff.

This spring has a much different tone. All one needed to do was look at the long-sleeve, collared shirt Malzahn wore after practice, the one with the SEC championship patch on its left shoulder. The building phase of Malzahn’s tenure is over. The questions are much fewer this year than the last. And with that, the sense of urgency is far more diminished.

“We've got more information now, so we're not as urgent,” Malzahn said. “We pretty much know a lot about the guys returning.”

Not every coach in the SEC is in the same enviable position.

“You've also got to keep in mind next year," Malzahn said. "You want to get your guys as much reps as you can moving forward for next year, because that's what it's all about ... but I would say, probably, for the most part, that we've got guys in the position that we want them to be in."

Not every coach can afford to look ahead this spring. Not every coach has the time.

With that said, let’s take a look at the programs with the most to accomplish this spring, ranking all 14 schools by the length of their to-do list.

Vanderbilt: Any new coaching staff has the most work to do, from determining the roster to installing new schemes on both sides of the ball. Throw in a new starting quarterback and the raid James Franklin put on the recruiting class, and it adds up to an enormously important spring for Derek Mason.

Kentucky: Mark Stoops has done a lot to turn around the culture at Kentucky. In fact, veteran defensive end Alvin Dupree said it feels like more of a football school now. But the fact remains that Stoops has a very young group to deal with, so inexperienced that true freshman Drew Barker is in contention to start at quarterback.

Tennessee: The Vols are facing many of the same challenges in Year 2 under Butch Jones. He has brought in a wealth of talent, including a remarkable 14 early enrollees. Considering the Vols lost all of their starters on both the offensive and defensive lines, there’s a lot of work to do.

Florida: The hot seat knows no reason. All is good in Gator Land right now as a new offense under a new coordinator is installed, injured players -- including starting quarterback Jeff Driskel -- return, and expectations creep upward. But a bad showing in the spring game could change the conversation quickly for Will Muschamp.

Arkansas: There’s nowhere to go but up for Bret Bielema after a 3-9 finish his first year with the program. The good news is he has young playmakers on offense (Hunter Henry, Alex Collins, etc.). The bad news is the quarterback position is unsettled and his defensive coaching staff is almost entirely overhauled from a year ago.

LSU: A depth chart full of question marks is nothing new for Les Miles, who has endured plenty of underclassmen leaving for the NFL before. But missing almost every skill player on offense (Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry) hurts. He has to find replacements at several key positions, and we haven’t even gotten into the defense.

Texas A&M: Cedric Ogbuehi can replace Jake Matthews at left tackle. The combination of Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil can replace Mike Evans at receiver. But who replaces the legend of Johnny Football? Determining a starter under center won’t be easy, but neither will be overhauling a defense that was far and away the worst in the SEC last year.

Georgia: Jeremy Pruitt should breathe some new life into a struggling Georgia defense. Having Hutson Mason to replace Aaron Murray helps as well. But off-the-field problems continue to plague Mark Richt’s program. With stars such as Todd Gurley, the players are there. The pieces just need to come together.

Missouri: After 13 seasons in Columbia, Gary Pinkel knows how to handle the spring. Maty Mauk appears ready to take over for James Franklin at quarterback, and even with the loss of Henry Josey, there are still plenty of weapons on offense. The real challenge will be on defense, where the Tigers must replace six starters, including cornerstones E.J. Gaines, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam.

Alabama: The quarterback position won’t be settled this spring, so we can hold off on that. But still, Nick Saban faces several challenges, including finding two new starters on the offensive line, replacing C.J. Mosley on defense and completely overhauling a secondary that includes Landon Collins and a series of question marks.

Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze has his players. Now he just has to develop them. With emerging stars Robert Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, Laremy Tunsil, Evan Engram and Laquon Treadwell, there’s plenty to build around. Include a veteran starting quarterback in Bo Wallace and there’s a lot to feel good about in Oxford.

Mississippi State: It’s a new day in the state of Mississippi as both state institutions have high expectations this spring. Mississippi State returns a veteran defense, a solid offensive line and a quarterback in Dak Prescott who could turn into a Heisman Trophy contender. A few months after Dan Mullen was on the hot seat, he now appears to be riding high.

Auburn: Losing Tre Mason and Greg Robinson hurts, but outside of those two stars, the roster remains fairly intact. Nick Marshall figures to improve as a passer, the running back corps is well off, and the receivers stand to improve with the addition of D’haquille Williams. The defense should get better as youngsters such as Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson gain experience.

South Carolina: Steve Spurrier would like to remind everyone that Dylan Thompson was the only quarterback in the country to beat Central Florida last season. Sure, Thompson wasn’t the full-time starter last year, but he has plenty of experience and is ready to be the man. Throw in a healthy and eager Mike Davis and an improving set of skill players, and the offense should improve. The defense has some making up to do on the defensive line, but there’s no reason to panic, considering the rotation they used last year.
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Amari Cooper wasn’t himself for much of last season.

An injury to his foot robbed him of games against Colorado State and Georgia State, and even then, it needed longer to heal. He wasn’t near 100 percent until halfway through the season. And by that point, the dubious question of whether we were witnessing a sophomore slump was unavoidable. The same receiver who burst onto the scene in 2012, earning SEC All-Freshman and freshman All-American honors, was a shell of himself. He couldn’t get off the line quickly and, to make matters worse, he was dropping the passes that were thrown his way.

The former four-star prospect from South Florida who caught 59 passes for 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns as a freshman saw his numbers slip to 45 receptions, 736 yards and four touchdowns as a sophomore. The number of times he was targeted didn’t drop off significantly -- from 77 to 74 -- but his receptions for first downs fell by 31 percent and his number of catches for 20 yards or more was cut nearly in half, down from 19 to 10.

[+] EnlargeCooper
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsAfter a foot injury limited his productivity in 2013, Amari Cooper expects to bounce back this fall.
Cooper may not know those numbers off the top of his head, but he should remember the frustration he felt last season. “Not being able to play to your fullest potential when you know you can go out there and dominate,” as he described it, ate at him. Only over the final few games did we see the Amari Cooper we were used to seeing. During that stretch, he caught 15 passes for 299 yards, including a 99-yard breakaway touchdown against Auburn. His speed was back on full display and so were his feet. Without pain, he could be elusive once again. He could finally cut and dance away from defenders like he did as a freshman.

The hope for Alabama’s coaches and quarterbacks is that Cooper’s strong finish will serve as a springboard into a junior campaign that will help return him to the conversation of the SEC’s elite receivers.

“Amari's really played outstanding football here for us for two years,” said Alabama coach Nick Saban. “About halfway through his freshman year, he really became an outstanding player. He got very confident in what he was doing. Last year, I thought he had a very good year, especially the second half of the year. So far this spring, he's been phenomenal in the offseason program as well as in the first three practices that we've had.”

Cooper, by all accounts, is back to his old self. He said he's added five to six pounds during the offseason conditioning program and worked on his speed. At Alabama’s pro day earlier this month, he ran the 40-yard dash for scouts and came in at a jaw-dropping 4.31 seconds on one of three times he received. The other two stopwatches weren’t that far off at 4.35 and 4.38 seconds, he said.

“It’s all about technique in the 40,” he explained. “I’m trying to get faster, and I guess you guys will see whenever I decide to come out [for the NFL].”

If he has another 50-plus reception and double-digit touchdown season this fall, he could turn pro sooner than later. The crop of receivers in this year’s draft is deep, but next year’s doesn’t figure to be quite as challenging.

But for now, the focus is on putting together a strong junior season, starting with a strong spring. With a new offensive coordinator and a new quarterback, there’s a lot to adjust to. What Cooper has seen from Lane Kiffin’s time at USC has him excited, though.

“We look at it for concepts we need to learn for our offense here, and we know what those guys did for him at USC at the wide receiver position,” he said, noting how Kiffin has a simpler and more player-friendly way of coaching the offense.

Said Saban: “Obviously [Cooper is] a guy [who] we want to get the ball to as many times as we can. Lane will do a really good job of getting the ball in the playmakers' hands. I think between the backs we have and the receivers we have and Coop's history of being a very consistent performer, I would think that he'll have an outstanding year.”

That said, someone will have to distribute and deliver the football. Alabama has five quarterbacks competing for the starting job now, and that crowded backfield will grow by one when Florida State transfer Jacob Coker arrives in May.

Cooper admitted that not having AJ McCarron to throw him the football is different, but he’s not showing the slightest sign of concern.

“It’s like when I came in. AJ was a new quarterback to me,” he said. “It’s the same thing with these guys. We’ve been working on timing since before spring practice started.

“We tried to get together almost every day to work on our timing.”

If Cooper can stay healthy and return to his 2012 form, he’ll be a benefit to whomever starts under center for Alabama.

He’s already shown he can dominate with what he’s done in the past. Whether you choose to call his sophomore season a full-on slump or a minor setback, there’s plenty of room for him to get better as a junior. With those feet, those hands and that speed, he could easily rise to the top of the SEC’s best receivers, if not the entire country.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- “It’s not like we don’t have anybody at the position,” Alabama coach Nick Saban told a group of reporters prior to the start of spring practice earlier this month, running down the list of questions he had for his team before arriving at the safety position.

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is gone at free safety. Vinnie Sunseri is gone at strong safety. Mark Barron has been around the practice facility training lately, but his eligibility ran out long ago, not to mention the pay is decent in the NFL.

[+] EnlargeLandon Collins
Ryan A. Miller/Icon SMIAlabama will need Landon Collins to solidify his safety role and lead the Tide's secondary.
So while everyone is craving news on the quarterback competition and the progress of new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, Saban, who happens to coach the defensive backs, is looking at the safeties where he must replace his two most veteran starters.

“We lost two safeties, but we've got Jarrick Williams, Landon Collins,” he said. “Nick Perry's coming back. Geno (Smith) spent a year at safety so he's probably going to continue to progress.”

Indeed, there are a few reasons for Saban to feel good about the position, maybe none more so than Colllins, who came on strong last season after playing primarily on special teams as a true freshman in 2012. The former five-star prospect filled in for Clinton-Dix when he was suspended and then changed roles when Sunseri was lost for the season to injury.

He didn’t start the first four games of the season, but Collins was in the lineup for the final nine contests, showing the playmaking ability that made him such a coveted recruit out of Louisiana. He finished second on the team in tackles (70), tied for first in interceptions (2) and fumble recoveries (2) and led everyone with eight passes defended. He was named second team All-SEC by the Associated Press.

Saban is expecting even more in 2014. From his seat as head coach, he has seen the key to Collins’ improvement: when the games slow down in his head he can play fast, and when he plays fast there’s no stopping him.

“All players have things that they can work on to improve, and Landon's certainly a guy that is a great competitor and really works hard every day to try to improve and has a really good attitude about it,” Saban said following the third practice of the spring on Wednesday. “I think he's trying to affect other people, be a leader set a good example, encourage others to do things the way they need to do it.

“With Landon, to me, when he understands what he's supposed to do, he really plays fast and is effective. I think the more knowledge and experience that he gets, the more consistently he'll be able to play that way, and that's certainly our goal for him this spring.”

Collins wasn’t expected to be a full-time starter last spring, which was his first on campus. This spring there’s no question he’ll be in the lineup week in and week out.

While most players might not love the grind of spring practice, where the finish line of a game each Saturday doesn’t exist, Collins is embracing it.

“Most of us love spring practice,” he told ESPN’s Ivan Maisel. “Speaking for the defensive part of it, a lot of our safeties are just trying to figure it out. It was fast-paced going into the season and in fall camp we still didn’t know a lot of the formations and calls and what to do. [In the spring] the coaches get a chance to sit down and take over everything slowly and go over every point and detail to help them act quickly on the field.”

If Collins can play fast, that’s a good sign for Alabama’s defense moving forward. He’ll need help, though. The free safety spot opposite him is up for grabs, along with both starting cornerback positions.

It will be an uphill climb for Saban and his staff to solidify the secondary, but at least they have Collins to start with. From there, at least there are options. As Saban said, it’s not like there’s no one out there to choose from.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Three practices into spring camp, it’s been all Lane Kiffin all the time. Love him or hate him, the man moves the needle. And even though he can’t speak to the media in his new role as offensive coordinator at Alabama, he seems to be all anyone in Tuscaloosa can talk about.

The visor! My goodness, the visor!

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Kyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsLane Kiffin brings his visor and offensive acumen, along with some baggage, with him to Alabama.
As far as career arcs go, Kiffin’s has been interesting, erratic and downright inexplicable. He rose through the ranks almost as quickly as he fell out of them. When he finally hit rock bottom at Los Angeles International Airport, where he was called off the USC team bus and fired, an unlikely hand was there to catch him. Nick Saban, who shares an agent with Kiffin and coached against him during his brief stint as head coach at Tennessee, threw the 38-year-old a lifeline few expected, offering him a chance to rebuild his reputation at Alabama.

First he was hired. Then he sang karaoke. And now, mercifully, he’s doing the simple job of coaching football.

The Kiffin melodrama has finally taken the important turn from speculation into substance. The talk is still ongoing -- depending on who you ask, he’s either going to bring Alabama’s offense into the 21st century or send it back to the stone age -- but now at least he’s moving around on the practice field, leading an offense that lacks a starting quarterback but is loaded with talent. He’s still wearing his visor, it just has a different shade of red.

So far, players seem to be buying in to Kiffin’s coaching style. Standout receiver Amari Cooper said Kiffin has made the offense more simple and “player-friendly.” The way he calls plays, Cooper explained, makes it easier to know what you’re supposed to do.

But what’s he like underneath that visor? Has he sang to you in any of your meetings yet?

“Pretty cool guy. Pretty laid back guy,” Cooper said of his initial impression of Kiffin. “He pays attention to everything -- every little thing. I noticed that about him when we were practicing for the bowl game.”

Astute college football fans will remember the first taste of Kiffin in Tuscaloosa came back in December when Saban brought him in to help evaluate the offense during bowl practice. It caused a minor uproar, to which Saban said he “couldn’t believe there’s any reaction to it.” A month later Doug Nussmeier left for Michigan, and Kiffin took his office and his title.

Brian Vogler, who started every game at tight end last season for the Crimson Tide, had to get used to seeing Kiffin on the field directing the offense. The senior had seen him plenty on television, but having him there in person was altogether different.

“People know who he is. He's very high profile,” Vogler said. “Seeing him over there, I think it’s great, honestly.”

Vogler credited Kiffin with being more hands-on and player-friendly, just like Cooper did. How the offense will change remains to be seen, though. On the one hand, Vogler said he expected it to be “a little bit more dynamic,” but at the same time he thought things would stay fairly similar to years' past.

“It’s Saban’s, so it’s going to be the same offense,” he said.

Each new coordinator brings his own set of wrinkles, certainly, but Vogler’s observation isn’t far off from what former coaches and players told ESPN a year ago.

Will Kiffin incorporate a more up-tempo attack? Maybe, maybe not.

“We’re a team that’s made to be maulers,” Vogler said. “Guys are just going to be really physical with you, hit you from every aspect of the game and hit you in every direction. I just don't know if that's really our style of being speedy and trying to be elusive around everybody and dodge people like other schools do."

For now, Saban is mostly noncommittal about what changes Kiffin will bring to the offense. He would, however, like to see him get the ball to guys such as Cooper more often.

“Lane will do a really good job of getting the ball into the playmakers' hands,” he said.

Expectations might be under control within the Alabama bubble, but outside they’re not so reasoned. Kiffin isn’t just any new offensive coordinator. He’s still the guy who ruffled the feathers of many in the SEC and didn’t make a lot of friends during his time at USC. He’s stepped into a much different role now where he won’t make headlines with what he says, but he still has all eyes on him.

If you’re an Alabama fan, you’re watching for the spark of greatness that afforded him so many jobs in the past. If you’re not wearing crimson, you’re watching to see if he'll self-destruct as he has before.

But chances are that whoever you are, you’re watching. A lot of people are tuned in to see whether the marriage of Kiffin and Saban will work. It’s become must-see TV.
1. Alabama head coach Nick Saban and Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo coached as young assistants at Michigan State in the 1980s. They both became head coaches there in 1995. They remain good friends. Saban this week on Izzo: "He believes in all the same stuff that a football coach believes in: toughness, discipline, relentless competitor, the intangible things that we pride ourselves (on having) as football players and football coaches, because it's a tough game. That's how he coaches basketball. I think it reflects how his team plays."

2. Texas coach Charlie Strong said Tuesday that assistants Shawn Watson and Joe Wickline will be able to work together "because those two guys have been around too long for the egos." I expect Strong is right. But the whole business of job titles in coaching is nothing if not a reflection of ego. Watson is assistant head coach of the offense, which is different, somehow, from Wickline's position as offensive coordinator. Is that really necessary?

3. Coaches love spring practice because they get to teach without having to prepare the team for Saturday. Players don't feel the love. Younger ones endure the drudgery until they figure out it's the time to learn and sharpen skills. By then, they are upperclassmen who know not to look ahead. "If you sit here and think the spring game is on Apr. 19, it will kill you," Auburn senior defensive tackle Gabe Wright said. "You just go into it , 'O.K., 13 more (practices). Let's see what I can get better on.' And there is so much we can get better on."
It’s not Vegas, baby. But Manhattan Beach will do.

Actor Vince Vaughn has purchased former USC coach Lane Kiffin’s Manhattan Beach house for $6.5 million, according to the L.A. Times.

The 7,308-square-foot-property is a Craftsman-style home that was built in 2002. (Full disclosure, I didn’t know what craftsman style was. I had to look it up). The six-bedroom, seven-bathroom house sits on a half-acre lot and has a swimming pool/spa, outdoor kitchen and guesthouse.

Kiffin was fired five games into the 2013 season and has since been hired as the offensive coordinator at Alabama. He was 28-15 in three-plus seasons with the Trojans, including a 10-2 record in 2011. Chances are, Kiffin didn’t get to spend much time enjoying the spoils and amenities of the property. He regularly spent his nights sleeping in his office. So far, it sounds like he's doing well in Tuscaloosa.

No word yet on whether Vaughn will be installing a regulation dodgeball court. But I think we can all agree that would be so money.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban said his team “lost respect for winning” last season.

Trey DePriest said players “lost sight of the small things.”

Amari Cooper, agreed, adding that his teammates “didn’t connect with each other” like they needed to.

There are plenty of reasons why Alabama went from unquestioned No. 1 in the polls to a two-loss disappointment last season. Everyone remembers the last-second loss at Auburn and the backbreaking defeat against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, but do they remember the fumbles, missed opportunities and general malaise that came before it? Do they recall how poor the offense was against Virginia Tech, how terrible the defense was against Texas A&M? What about the goal-line fumble that kept LSU from going up 4 points at halftime or how a sub-.500 Mississippi State team played Alabama close for the better part of four quarters?

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
John Reed/USA TODAY SportsBama LB Trey DePriest says complacency won't be an issue for the Crimson Tide this season.
Whatever plagued Alabama can be best summed up in one catch-all word: complacency.

We hadn’t heard that one around Tuscaloosa in a while before the new year. For weeks and weeks heading into the Sugar Bowl the narrative was how complacency wasn’t an issue. Alabama wasn’t taking Oklahoma lightly, Saban and his players explained. It wasn't the national championship, but they were eager to show they were championship-caliber still, they insisted. Then came the two-touchdown loss in which Alabama gave up 45 points and 429 yards of offense.

And, then, talk of complacency.

It became the narrative of the offseason. It wasn’t that Alabama wasn’t good enough last season -- looking at the stacked roster, it’s hard to argue it wasn’t -- it’s that the players were somehow not focused enough. They didn’t want to win as much as they should have. They weren’t ready to fight for it like they had in years past.

Back-to-back national championships led Saban to say that, “I think sometimes players can get a little complacent and lose their respect for winning, and what it takes to be their best. … Sometimes you need a few setbacks to straighten you out.”

Sound familiar? It should. It’s a similar story to what we heard following the 2010 season when Alabama lost three games after being ranked preseason No. 1. With a chip planted firmly on its shoulder and complacency solidly in its past, the Crimson Tide went out and won a national championship in 2011.

DePriest was a true freshman playing primarily on special teams that season. Now he’s the most veteran player on defense, a senior taking over C.J. Mosley's role as the vocal leader at inside linebacker. He’s someone that everyone should “look up to,” according to Saban.

Complacency, DePriest said, won’t be an excuse this spring. Not from what he’s seen.

Usually when Alabama players gathers for the Fourth Quarter Program, strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran’s grueling series of workouts, there are more than a few who aren’t altogether excited for the challenge. Going from the couch to the weight room isn’t an easy transition, especially when it comes only weeks after the season ends.

But this year was different.

“Stepping into that Fourth Quarter Program, it’s usually like, ‘Aww, man, it’s the Fourth Quarter and we’ve got to run,’” DePriest said prior to practice on Monday. “But guys were actually excited to go out there and run and see if they can push themselves to the limit.

“That’s another thing I’ve seen, that guys are pushing themselves to the limit and not just letting their mind control their body. They were pushing and actually telling themselves that they can do it.”

If players weren’t complacent in the face of a screaming Scott Cochran, that’s a good sign. But it’s only the first sign. Monday marked practice No. 2 of 15 this spring, and then after A-Day there’s three more months of downtime to deal with. If players don’t motivate themselves then, look for it to show up late in the summer when preseason camp begins. And then the competition really begins and players either step up and separate themselves or fall behind.

After losing two games and falling into bad habits last season, Alabama can’t afford to lose a step. Defending SEC champ Auburn isn’t going anywhere, LSU is loaded with talented players, and Texas A&M promises to continue its upward trajectory without Johnny Manziel. And that’s just half of the SEC West.

Whether or not this spring’s attitude holds, one thing is certain: Complacency is not an option in 2014. Everyone is saying that right things so far, but only time will tell if words translate into action.

ESPN CFB Spring Tour: Alabama

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It’s already that time of year, folks. Spring practices are sprouting up all over the country and we’ll be there covering it all.

Our ESPN College Football Spring Tour continues in T-Town, where Alabama reporter Alex Scarborough will be bringing you the sights and sounds from campus today. Keep this page open starting at 10 a.m. ET as Alex provides insight, interviews, pictures and videos from Crimson Tide camp.

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Whether he’s beginning the process of defending a national championship or rebounding from a disappointing season, Nick Saban remains the same.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban and the Crimson Tide
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesDespite some new faces at Alabama, Nick Saban is a creature of habit whose goals remain the same.
After five decades coaching college football, he’s become a creature of habit. Every time he opens practice at the University of Alabama, it looks the same. There’s an order to it. Each position group is where it's supposed to be. Every player's actions are accounted for. It’s like clockwork. There are no wasted movements. Every moment goes according to his plan.

And, as it turns out, Saban’s process boils all the way down to what he puts on in the morning. Whether it’s been by design or not, the notoriously meticulous head coach has worn the same exact outfit for the first day of spring practice ever since 2008. This year was no different.

A new group of players and coaches walked onto the Thomas-Drew Practice Field for the first time on Saturday afternoon. AJ McCarron was gone from under center, C.J. Mosley was no longer captaining the defense and a number of other familiar faces were noticeably absent. But Saban remained. He put on the same red sweater, khaki pants and nondescript sneakers he’s worn for the first day of spring practice the past seven years. He donned the same straw hat he’s used every year since then, too, with the exception of a rainy day in 2009 that forced his team indoors.

Anyone looking for Alabama to change after ending last season with two losses will be disappointed. Saban may have a new roster, a new coaching staff and a new set of challenges, but his demeanor is exactly the same. His goals haven’t fluctuated: create incremental improvement and focus on what he calls “consistency in performance," which is his process, in a nutshell.

“The first practice is always a sort of work in progress for everybody. [It's] new players learning where to go, old players trying to get back into the swing of things," Saban said.

He used the phrase “work in progress” three times during a hurried seven-minute news conference. He was in a rush, one of his staffers said, because there were a number of recruits he needed to visit with. He went through the motions, answered three questions and was off. With the exception of one position change (ArDarius Stewart at safety) and a few roster moves (Harrison Jones, Chad Lindsay and Jai Miller are gone), it was business as usual.

Saban said he was pleased with the way his team responded to the offseason conditioning program and was eager to see how spring practice would play out. Re-establishing the fundamentals will be the focus for the first few days, he explained, and then they’ll get into the playbook. He made no mention of last season, the last-second loss at Auburn or the poor showing against Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. It has weighed heavily into the national conversation, but it’s clear Saban has moved on.

“Players have to develop the discipline to sustain so we finish practice, finish games, finish quarters, finish halves like we really want to,” he said.

Trey DePriest, however, is using last season as inspiration. He was on the field when the Sooners embarrassed his defense in New Orleans, racking up 45 points and 429 yards. He was on the sidelines a month earlier when Chris Davis went 109 yards to steal an Iron Bowl win and an undefeated season away from the Tide. The last time Auburn dealt Alabama such a blow, a motivational poster was made as a reminder. “Never Again,” it read, along with a grinning picture of Cam Newton. The next year Alabama destroyed Auburn, went 12-1 and won a national championship.

“Guys are just a lot more hungry,” DePriest said. “We didn’t finish the season like we wanted to. Guys knew that and they just took a different approach to it, and [we] are trying to get back to the standard to how we do stuff.”

Amari Cooper wasn’t around when Alabama was dealt a similar setback in 2010, losing three games after being ranked preseason No. 1. But the standout junior receiver has noticed a different motivation from his teammates this spring. The leaders are stepping up more, he said. What Saban is asking them to do -- “stay focused and finish” -- isn’t different from years past, but Cooper has seen a better focus from everyone.

[+] EnlargeJacob Coker
Jeff Gammons/Getty ImagesExpect the Crimson Tide's QB competition to heat up in May when Jacob Coker arrives.
What remains to be seen is how that sustains itself and translates into results. Cooper doesn’t have McCarron throwing him the football anymore. Doug Nussmeier is no longer his offensive coordinator. He now has five unknown candidates at quarterback, a sixth on the way and a coordinator with a somewhat checkered past. So far, Cooper said, he’s enjoyed the change, noting how Lane Kiffin has simplified the offense and made it more “player-friendly.”

As far as the quarterback battle, he thinks that will be fine, too.

“It’s not weird,” he said. “It’s just a quarterback competition. I think schools have that every year.”

But Alabama isn’t any school. Not when you win three of the past five national championships. Not when your head coach is Nick Saban and losing two games is a disappointment.

The quarterback competition may be simmering on the back burner now, but it’s going to heat up when Florida State transfer Jacob Coker arrives in May. As far as Saban is concerned, he’d like to keep that on the periphery. He’s going to be asked 1,000 times about it, and 1,000 times he’s going to give the same answer: “We’re going to wait and see.”

If you’re looking for Saban to give into the pressure of naming a starter before he’s ready, you’ll be disappointed. As with everything else he’s done as a head coach, he’s doing this on his own terms. His process is set, his plan is laid out, and after five decades of coaching, there’s no changing it. When a man wears the same thing for seven years in a row, you have to expect some consistency from him.

3-point stance: Texas two-step

March, 11, 2014
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1. Duane Akina became the seventh assistant from Mack Brown’s staff at Texas to get another job when Stanford hired him as secondary coach. Co-offensive coordinators Major Applewhite and Darrell Wyatt, the two highest-paid assistants, remain on the market. One interesting note: Most coaching contracts see to it that a fired coach gets the agreed-upon amount. If he is hired elsewhere for less than that amount, the first school makes up the difference. Not Texas. If you take another job, Texas is done.

2. Dr. Joab Thomas, the former president of the University of Alabama and Penn State University, died last week at age 81. While at Alabama, Thomas endured the controversy of hiring Ray Perkins and Bill Curry to replace the legendary Paul Bryant. In 1990, Thomas went to State College, Pa., where the equally legendary Joe Paterno turned 65 the following year. When someone asked him about Paterno retiring, Thomas said, “You can't ask one man to replace both Bear Bryant and Joe Paterno.”

3. Jake Trotter’s post Monday described the desire of West Virginia players to turn the program around after a 4-8 record last season. Injuries contributed a great deal to the Mountaineers’ troubles. But the physical and mental burden of traveling to the Big 12 footprint will be an annual drag on West Virginia football. The good news is that in this season’s nine-game conference schedule, the 5/4 split tips to Milan Puskar Stadium. The bad news is that the season opens with a neutral-site game against Alabama in Atlanta.

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