HOOVER — Can 11-2 be classified as a down year?
Apparently, it can when you’re Nick Saban and your Alabama teams won three national titles in four years before that.
Saban still got the rock star treatment when he arrived Thursday at the Hyatt Regency Birmingham for the final session of SEC Media Days. The lobby was packed with fans wanting autographs. During his 45-minute session, he fielded plenty of overview questions about college football that typically go to experienced coaches who have won a lot of games.
But when discussing his own team, he appeared to appraise the Crimson Tide as if it was coming off a losing season. Instead, he was talking about a team that won its first 11 games, then lost to Auburn and Oklahoma.
“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. “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.
“We have to reestablish our identity as a team at Alabama.”
The bulk of the offense from a year ago is back, as eight starters return from the lineup Alabama used against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. However, the three-year starting quarterback, AJ McCarron, is gone. So are six defensive players who started against the Sooners. Both the punter and place-kicker are gone, too.
Even so, Alabama was voted as the SEC champion in the annual media days poll, although since 1992, the Tide was picked to win the league five times and failed to do so each time — 1993, 2000, 2010, 2011 and 2013.
“We’re basically an unproven team in some areas,” Saban said. “There’s a lot of question marks because of the players that we lost and the players that we have coming in.”
The biggest question mark involves quarterback, where Alabama will have somebody new.
In 2009 and 2011, Saban entered the season with a new quarterback and won national titles both times. However, in 2009, Alabama was second nationally in total defense and scoring defense. In 2011, the Tide led the nation in both categories.
This time, Alabama enters with a young defense that includes only one player with more than 11 games as a starter — senior linebacker Trey DePriest, who is entering his third season as a full-time starter.
At quarterback, Alabama has Florida State transfer Jacob Coker and McCarron’s backup for two years, Blake Sims. Coker has two years of eligibility, while Sims has one.
Saban said he is looking for decision making, processing information quickly and accuracy with the ball. Neither Coker nor Sims has gotten more than a few token chances in the past to prove they can do all three of those things.
“How long is it going to take that guy to go through that process? How long is it going to take him to where he can do those things effectively and gain the respect of his teammates so that you play well together as a unit?” Saban asked. “I think that’s the biggest challenge.”