It is a testament to Nick Saban's success that the Crimson Tide's current two-game losing streak feels like the apocalypse. Of course, Saban has happily used all that sky-is-falling angst as a motivational tool for a program that has gone 36--4 in the past three seasons. The 2013 team, he says, lost its identity, and the only way to get back on the championship path is by rededicating to the Process, Saban's blueprint for gridiron success. "Everybody's got to trust in the principles and values that helped you be successful to start with," Saban says. "No questioning anything. No judging anything. You've just got to do it." If that sounds a tad totalitarian, Saban doesn't really care. He's won four national titles—one at LSU and three in the past five years in Tuscaloosa—earning the name Nicktator along the way. The fear of more losses will only help him reestablish control.
Last season did expose some cracks in the Tide, but they were relatively minor. "Defensively we probably weren't quite as good as we were in the past," Saban says. "We're in a little bit of a rebuilding situation." Rebuilding at Alabama doesn't mean what it does anywhere else. For the first time since Saban's arrival in 2007, Bama didn't have NFL-ready talent developed at one position: cornerback. That group had lost one first-rounder a year for three seasons. The attrition, plus injuries, forced the Tide to play raw athletes who weren't ready. This year they should get more out of sophomore Eddie Jackson, junior Bradley Sylve and junior Cyrus Jones, while five-star freshmen Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey offer depth. Safety Landon Collins will provide a steadying influence, and an up-front push led by 320-pound sophomore defensive end A'Shawn Robinson should make the secondary's job easier.
The other mystery is at quarterback, where Florida State transfer Jacob Coker will compete with Blake Sims for the right to lead the offense run by former USC coach Lane Kiffin. Whoever wins the job will have plenty of help. The speedy Amari Cooper(right) has recovered from toe and foot injuries, and fellow receiver Christion Jones and tight end O.J. Howard will also stretch defenses. Tailback T.J. Yeldon is the SEC's returning rushing leader, and 238-pound sophomore Derrick Henry could be even better. The rebuild—such as it is—might be complete by the season opener.
For Lane Kiffin to succeed as offensive coordinator he must be the coach who turned Tennessee quarterback--punching bag Jonathan Crompton into an NFL draft pick. So far Kiffin seems nothing like the man who grimly (and briefly) ruled at USC. "He brings that sense of frivolity," wideout Amari Cooper says. "When you're constantly competing for a championship, things can get pretty serious. Coach Kiffin is a joyful guy." That's probably a good sign for the Tide attack.
When the Tide scheduled their opener against West Virginia in Atlanta, it seemed like the kind of game that would curry favor with the playoff selection committee. That might not be the case anymore, since the Mountaineers have faded the last two seasons. Fortunately for Alabama, the SEC West should be treacherous enough to satisfy any strength-of-schedule concerns. The Tide get Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Auburn at home, and the toughest road test is at LSU, where they needed a last-minute drive to win in 2012.
SI POWER RANKINGS / By Rotowire.com
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SPECIAL TEAMS 88%
OPPOSING COACH'S TAKE
They're very big on defense. Big up front. Their linebackers are those bigger bodies, which helps against the run, but they don't play in space as well because of their body types. They're meant to be stop-the-power, stop-the-counter guys. They don't do too much schematically. You know where they're going to be.
I do like their philosophy of, Hey, this is what you're going to get. It's up to you to try to beat it. They're very, very hard bodies to move. Their pass rush is not going to be bullets off the edge. We knew if it was going to be Cover Two or if it was going to be man.
They're coached very well, and their structure is very good. From talking to our players, the Bama kids did the least amount of trash-talking out of any team we played. They're just very disciplined players, and I have a lot of respect for that.
On offense they're very methodical, especially with their power run game. They try to control the game and the clock. They've got enough talent at wide receiver that if you pack the box, they're going to throw it over the top of you.
DAVID E. KLUTHO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (YELDON)
VASHA HUNT/AL.COM/LANDOV (KIFFIN)
DAVE MARTIN/AP (COOPER)