- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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None of Saban's teams were more aided by the coach's discipline than the current one. 'Bama opened without 11 starters from the 2011 national champs. Losses from that team included running back Trent Richardson (the No. 3 pick in the draft) and seven defenders. "Suddenly [in summer camp] we've got a team with no real superstars," says Jones.
Thursday is Speech Day in Tuscaloosa. Before practice, following hard sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday, players stand and talk to their teammates. In past seasons Tide veterans would rise and shout at their peers, demanding greatness. This year? "Businesslike is the word I would use," says Jones. "Not a lot of screaming." (The one exception is junior offensive tackle D.J. Fluker, the only fire-and-brimstone spirit on the roster.)
The emotion that was bottled up for much of the fall spilled over in the Tide's 21--17 victory at LSU on Nov. 3. The winning score came on a splendidly executed 28-yard screen pass from junior quarterback AJ McCarron to running back T.J. Yeldon. In the waning moments of the victory, television viewers saw McCarron crying on the Alabama bench, overwhelmed by the weight of the win. McCarron, who had quarterbacked the Tide to the 2011 title as well (and will return to try for a threepeat next year), was raised in Mobile but embraced the Miami teams of Willis McGahee and Andre Johnson and, in his words, "hated Alabama."
But not so his family, many of whom were in Tiger Stadium that night. "I wanted it for them," McCarron said. "And I wanted it for our group of seniors."
It was an epic victory for the Tide, one that seemed to position it for another national title. But there was a crushing hangover, and not just for McCarron. "Right away, Coach told us we had to get ready for another battle," says junior cornerback Dee Milliner. "But that LSU game was brutally physical. We were banged up."
Texas A&M and Johnny Football lay ahead, seven days away in Tuscaloosa. "We didn't overlook them, we really didn't," says Nico Johnson. "We were emotionally drained." Practice was poor all week—"We were just slow, for some reason," says McCarron—a red flag in the Saban process, where preparation predicts outcomes more than in most places.
"The times around here when we've lost games, it's always been after a lousy week of practice," says Jones. "Sometimes we've had a bad week and escaped with a win. That week, even the Thursday speeches were bad."
The Tide fell behind 20--0 and lost 29--24. Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel wrapped up the Heisman before a stunned Alabama crowd. With Kansas State, Notre Dame and Oregon all unbeaten, the national championship seemed lost. Saban gathered his team after the game and preached process. "I told them, 'The legacy of this team will be determined in the future,' " Saban says. " 'We need to move ahead.' " History can't help us win the next game.
A week later Alabama trounced Western Carolina 49--0 in what amounted to a public scrimmage, and then Tide players gathered in small groups to watch as Baylor pounded Kansas State and Stanford beat Oregon. Revisionist Tide history has painted 2012 as a triumph of the process, when in fact it is more a victory of the system—that system being the college football BCS paradigm (soon to die a public death) in which a loss on Nov. 17 is much more damaging than one a week earlier. This logic was not questioned in Tuscaloosa. "We took care of what we could control," says senior offensive guard Warmack.
Then came Georgia and the SEC championship. It was on the Thursday before that game—Speech Day—that Johnson stood in the middle of his teammates, some of whom had never played in an elimination game. True to the character of this team, he did not rant and he did not scream. "Don't get overwhelmed by the opportunity," Johnson said. "It's a big game, but it's just another game. Have fun. Dominate your opponent. Play 60 minutes."