Hoover, Ala. — When Nick Saban says that his 2013 Alabama team lost its identity along the way, here is what he means.
Alabama’s defense in the national championship seasons of 2011 and 2012 led the nation in yards per rush at 2.43.
The 2013 team, by contrast, gave up 3.32 yards per rush, thanks in no small part to the 296 yards allowed in the historic loss to Auburn.
That difference may not seem like a lot, but on such things are championships won — or lost.
And, after being ranked No. 1 every single day of the regular season, the 2013 Crimson Tide saw every one of their goals disappear when Auburn’s Chris Davis returned a short field goal 109 yards for a touchdown.
The hope for a third consecutive national championship: Gone
The hope of another SEC championship: Gone.
Saban remembers the sting of that Auburn loss, followed by a less than stirring performance in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma. It was clear when I visited him in the spring, and again before his media session here on Thursday, getting Alabama football back to its philosophical roots is Job 1.
And he ain’t kidding around. This year he expects everybody to be on board with “the process.”
“This season is about re-establishing our identity,” Saban said. “We as a team have to trust in the principles and values we believe in. It’s not about questions. It’s not about judging. It’s about how we adapt. How well we do that will determine how successful we will be.”
As SEC Media Days that concluded on Thursday, those who cover the conference clearly believe Alabama is going to bounce back in a big way. Despite the fact that Auburn, the defending SEC champion which came within seconds of winning the BCS title, returns its quarterback and most of its team, the media overwhelmingly voted the Crimson Tide to win the SEC West and the championship. Alabama got 154 votes to win championship while Auburn was a distant second at 75.
Saban could only smile when asked about again being the favorite, noting that only four times in the past 22 years has the media correctly picked the champion in the preseason.
“So I guess I’m rooting for you guys this year,” he said.
The last time Saban lost two consecutive games at Alabama was 2008, when the Crimson Tide lost to Tim Tebow and Florida in the SEC Championship game and then had a lackluster performance against Utah in the Sugar Bowl.
Alabama responded to those losses by reeling off 19 consecutive victories, including an undefeated season and national championship in 2009. Nine of those 19 victories were against Top 25 teams.
Two big concerns must be addressed. The first is whether or not transfer quarterback Jacob Coker can manage the game and get the ball to Alabama’s talented play makers, and there are many. The second deals with the cornerback position, where the Crimson Tide will be very inexperienced.
If both of those concerns go in Alabama’s favor, the schedule looks more than manageable with Auburn coming to Tuscaloosa and a trip to LSU on Nov. 8.
Saban made it clear on Thursday that this Alabama team will approach the season with a different mindset than a year ago.
“I think you basically need to check your ego at the door,” he said.