Nick Saban is sour, irascible, glowering—and that's when he agrees with you. Sitting across from the Alabama coach in his office between practices one early-August afternoon, a visitor invited him to participate in SI's quest. America had come to the merciful end of an off-season filled with grim headlines: from the epic corruption of ex--Fiesta Bowl chairman John Junker to the serial lies of ex--Ohio State coach Jim Tressel to the firing of coach Butch Davis at North Carolina (for presiding, albeit unknowingly, over academic fraud, among other sins) to Oregon's $25,000 payment to an alleged "street agent." The cavalcade of bad press had left us to wonder: Where is the good news?
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, Saban was told, is to remind readers what is good and fun about college football. His response—you will be stunned to learn—was to become irritated. Not at his visitor, but at the Eeyore Brigade, which, in his view, blows the sport's bad news out of proportion. "It upsets me a little that nobody's interested in good news, and there's a tremendous amount of good news in college football." Because there is "so much more information," thanks to the Internet, Saban believes, "it presents the perception that there's a lot wrong with the sport, and I don't believe that.
"Maybe I'm the eternal optimist"—he's not—"but I see so many guys who would probably never have gone to college [were it not for football]. I've seen them graduate and get great jobs. There are thousands of those stories."
He spoke of "the tremendous job" Alabama players have done in clearing debris and contributing to the rebuilding of houses in the wake of April's tornadoes that devastated Tuscaloosa and killed 50 people. "But they get no recognition for that."
If that were true, you wouldn't be reading about Barrett Jones, a 4.0 student and two-year starter at right guard who has twice been to Haiti on mercy missions and whose weight training in the aftermath of the tornadoes consisted of wielding a chain saw and lifting downed trees. He's an accounting major who, the day before camp started, finished a two-hour final exam—the last test he needed to pass in order to graduate in three years. "I walked out of the exam, grabbed my bag and moved into camp 35 minutes later. No time to celebrate, no time to call home and say, 'Hey, Mom, I graduated!'"
Jones's smarts and technical proficiency resulted in his being moved to left tackle during spring practice. Unless an understudy unseats him, he will spend this year protecting the blind side of either sophomore A.J. McCarron or redshirt freshman Phillip Sims, whoever emerges as starting quarterback for SI's preseason No. 1 team. Jones will also open holes for 5'11", 224-pound Trent Richardson, a Heisman Trophy candidate (page 99) who is bigger, faster and stronger than his Heisman-winning predecessor Mark Ingram.
"God gave me a gift," says Richardson, a workout fiend and former Florida state weightlifting champion, "and I just try to meet him halfway with it." That is, he tries to honor the gift by making the most of it. "Whether it's running around somebody or running them over, I try to use it every way I can."
Crimson Tide guys don't bother with small-time, penny-ante goals. They go big or go home. For his part, Richardson wants to be "one of the best college football players that's ever come through the NCAA." He'd like to see his team at least get back to the SEC championship game, after missing last year's. He and his teammates are reminded of the loss that kept them out of the title game every day. A laminated poster of Auburn quarterback Cam Newton celebrating the Tigers' 28--27 comeback victory with fellow first-round pick Nick Fairley hangs in every stall in the 'Bama dressing room this off-season. On each poster is the legend, NEVER AGAIN.
Never's a long time. But the Tide, with far more talent returning, will be favored at this year's Iron Bowl, even though the game is at Auburn. Beyond that, says Richardson, the goal will be to "try to get to New Orleans"—site of the BCS national championship game.
Nobody nurses a grudge like Saban, who made sure when his players showed up for workouts this year that footage of that Iron Bowl loss was playing on the TVs in the weight room. It's heavy-handed, but effective: The last time Saban & Co. spent a year stewing over a loss, Tim Tebow ended up weeping on the sideline at the SEC title game, and the Tide went on to win the 2009 national title.