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A YEAR REMOVED FROM WINNING THE BCS CHAMPIONSHIP, Alabama ended last season with a 10--3 record that was considered a disappointment. The Crimson Tide began the year ranked No. 1, only to finish fourth in the SEC West, losing to South Carolina, LSU and, after a stunning second-half collapse, archrival Auburn. And yet the statistics suggest Nick Saban's team was still one of the strongest in the country, particularly on defense, where it finished third nationally in points allowed (13.5) and fifth in yards allowed (286.4). "In the three games we lost, we gave up 35, 28 and 24 points," says Saban. "Our lack of maturity and knowledge contributed to last year's defense making the mental errors that led to a big play that let the other team back in the game."
Having endured those growing pains, Alabama's 2011 defense is now brimming with experience. The returning starters include four All-SEC honorees: safeties Mark Barron and Robert Lester, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and linebacker Dont'a Hightower. In addition, linebacker Courtney Upshaw emerged as a dominant pass rusher late last season and had two sacks and a forced fumble in the Tide's 49--7 demolition of Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl. "That  team tried to create an identity for itself in the bowl game," says Saban. "I see some of that same sense of purpose a little bit more in this team."
For Alabama's returning players that purpose is obvious: to wipe away the bitter memory of watching their cross-state nemesis win the SEC and BCS championships after the Tigers erased a 24-point deficit to win 28--27 in Tuscaloosa. "We're a very selfish team. We've got a lot of pride," says running back Trent Richardson. "To even watch the SEC championship game, it had me sick."
The Tide will lean heavily on the dynamic Richardson, a potential Heisman candidate, and a veteran offensive line while breaking in a new starting quarterback, either third-year sophomore A.J. McCarron or redshirt freshman Phillip Sims. Come SEC play, the revenge tour begins. "We're trying to get the wins back," says Upshaw, especially eyeing games with LSU and Auburn. "We've got to get them."
COACH Nick Saban (5th year) 43--11 (26--8 in SEC)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR Jim McElwain
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR Kirby Smart
2010 RECORD 10--3 (5--3, 4th in SEC West)