HOOVER, Ala.— Immediately after taking the podium at SEC Media Days on Wednesday, Alabama head coach Nick Saban made sure the year was in fact 2010.
After asking the rhetorical question in a somewhat sarcastic tone, he was firm in delivering his point — last season is over, and nothing the Crimson Tide accomplished in 2009 matters anymore.
The undefeated season, SEC title and national championship, along with various individual awards, made the season historical, Saban said. But they offer no definition for what’s to come this season.
“You know, we’re not really defending a championship,” Saban said. “I’m sure somebody is going to ask me, ‘How are you going to defend the championship?’ The championship is a part of history, and we’re not going to defend anything. I think we’re not into repeating.”
Although the Crimson Tide returns key variables from last year’s team — including Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, quarterback Greg McElroy and wide receiver Julio Jones — this is a very different team, Saban said, regardless of how many familiar faces are returning.
“If you look at us, none of us are wearing our rings,” McElroy said. “We understand that whatever happened last year isn’t going to give us an advantage this year.”
While the offense remains virtually intact, Alabama’s defense incurred losses up front, at linebacker and in the secondary. In total, the Crimson Tide sent seven players to the NFL draft, with only two defensive starters holding over.
Still, the team is projected by most to win the SEC once again and compete for back-to-back national titles.
All that expectation comes along with a bulls-eye for opponents.
Through all the hype and hoopla, Saban’s message is clear: The 2010 version of the Crimson Tide must forge its own identity.
“Even if we had all the same ingredients back, it would be difficult to manufacture the same kind of team chemistry,” Saban said. “That’s one of the great things about college football, is there’s always a lot of new opportunity for a lot of new people because you have turnover on your team.”
Defending the spread
Always looking for an edge on the recruiting trail, many college coaches have knocked the spread offense for not preparing players for the NFL.
After hearing similar comments made by Saban, Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen quickly jumped to defend the offense he has ran for years as a coordinator and head man.
Pointing out two quarterbacks he worked with — Alex Smith at Utah and Florida’s Tim Tebow — having been taken in the first round of the NFL draft, Mullen said his track record stacks up nicely compared to Saban.
“I’ve coached the spread offense, and I have a lot more first-round quarterbacks drafted than (Saban) has in his career as a head coach,” Mullen said. “Develop them for the NFL, I don’t know. In the last six years, I’ve had two of mine get drafted in the first round.”
Entering his second year in Starkville, Mullen has seen his tenure break records for both attendance at the annual spring scrimmage and for season ticket sales.
He intends to build on last season’s 5-7 result, which included a win over in-state rival Mississippi to end the year.
Entering his first season as head coach at Kentucky, Joker Phillips has issued a challenge to his players encompassing more than on-the-field success.
In what he has dubbed “Operation Win,” Phillips has encouraged his players to excel in the classroom and in the community, along with their play on Saturdays this fall.
“Operation Win is in full effect,” Phillips said. “There’s no question about that. Our coaches did a great job of selling the 2010 recruiting class, and we finished recruiting strong. Our coaches also did a great job of selling our present players, which was important.”
Already seeing the results, the Wildcats’ grade-point average has gone up four-tenths of point since Phillips took over.
“Has everybody bought in? No,” Phillips said. “But the ones that haven’t bought in, they will either be no longer with us or they’ll be the best conditioned player on our team. We need those guys to buy in.”