Q&A: Saban not ready to crown his defense -- yet

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- When Nick Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007 he found a football program and a fan base "who talked a lot about winning national championships but not about the amount of work that was going to be necessary to win one."

Saban quickly changed that mind-set. Since going 7-6 his first season in Tuscaloosa, Saban's Alabama teams are 44-5 with a national championship in 2009. The 2011 edition of the Crimson Tide is 8-0 and ranked No. 2 as they prepare to host No. 1 LSU in what is being billed as "The Game of the Century." Late last week Saban, who turned 60 on Monday, sat down with Tony Barnhart of CBSSports.com to talk about Saturday's game and the state of the Alabama program.

Barnhart: When you have a game of this magnitude, do you ignore the buildup, embrace it or manage it?

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Saban: The best way is to manage it because it is going to be there no matter what you do. We try to get our guys to understand that the most important thing is to play good football. We have to focus on the right things so that all the clutter that surrounds the game -- newspaper, TV radio -- it doesn't matter. You still have to focus on your ability to execute and do your job. And do it against probably the best player you've had to do it against all year.

Barnhart: There are huge ramifications for the winner of this game. Do you discuss those with your team?

Saban: Our guys know the ramifications of a game like this. We don't have to discuss it with them. We really try to talk in terms of what we do. We try to focus on playing to a standard -- our standard. That gives us the best chance. We tell our guys not to focus on the outcome. We ask them to focus on the process. Focus on what you have to do to get the outcome you want.

Barnhart: Your quarterback, AJ McCarron, had two interceptions in his first game (Kent State) and has thrown only one since. Talk about his development.

Saban: AJ has matured a lot as a football player in these eight games. He's done a lot of good things. He's also done some things that he had to overcome. AJ is a little bit of a gym rat. He's into the preparation for a game and prepares very well. The biggest thing he has done is taken what the defense has given him. He hasn't turned it over a lot and has managed the game well. Because of that he's developed a lot of confidence from the other players.

Barnhart: You have had a lot of great running backs in your time as a head coach. Have you had anyone quite like Trent Richardson?

Saban: Trent is a unique guy. He's such a good person and such a hard worker. He's driven and competitive. He obviously has a lot of talent. But when you have a person who is talented as he is and still as driven as he is, then you have something special.

Barnhart: A lot of people who follow college football believe that this is your best defense. Do you agree?

Saban: I think you have to wait until the entire body of work is in for the whole season. The great defenses step up in the big games and ours still has some work to do. We've got good team speed. We have very good experience in the secondary and at linebacker. This team does not make a lot of mistakes.

Barnhart: Your last two games with Ole Miss and Tennessee were relatively close at halftime, but then you pulled away in the second half. Are you concerned about a slow start against LSU?

Saban: We have started well in some games but in other games we sort of feel our way along and establish a confidence in what we can do. Then we begin to execute it a little better. Usually the first eight to 10 plays in a game we see a lot of things (opponents) haven't done before. Most players are a little apprehensive if they haven't seen something in practice. That's happened a few times, and the players have done a really good job adjusting to it. But I've also said that you don't know if you have a really good fighter until you see if he can take a punch. We took a couple of punches so far this year, but we overcame it.

Barnhart: What is the biggest concern against LSU?

Saban: They are running the ball extremely well. They have really good backs and a really good offensive line and everything they do is set up by their ability to grind it out. When a team can do that, sometimes you do things you don't want to do in order to stop them from running. Defensively, they are extremely talented. Very strong up front. This is a really good team.

Barnhart: If this game is close, there will be a discussion about whether or not these are the two best teams in the country. There will also be a discussion about a possible rematch for the national championship. As a coach, do you want to be a part of that discussion?

Saban: You can't. The focus as a coach has to be on getting your team to play its best football regardless of the results. A coach has to get his team to be the best team they can be and have the most success that they can have. The challenge for me as the leader of this organization is to get this team to play at the highest possible level regardless of what the outcome is in any particular game. Then if we get to play in the (national championship) game, we get to play in the game.

Barnhart: When you came here in 2007, you talked about things like accountability. You said that this program needed to speak with one voice and that every player would have to philosophically buy into the program that you wanted to build. Has that happened to your satisfaction in the past five years?

Saban: I don't think there is any question about it. It is a credit to the players who were already in the program and who bought in, even though some of them may have come here without those principles and values as part of their deal. It is a credit to the players we recruited to commit to do those things that would help them be successful. Once they committed to the principles and values, those guys were willing to put in the hard work to make it happen. We like where our program is right now.

Barnhart: After tornadoes ripped through Tuscaloosa and did so much damage on April 27, a lot of people were really looking forward to this football season and particularly this game. How much of that tragedy still lingers today and will that be a part of what happens Saturday night?

Saban: I think everything that has happened -- from graduation to our first football game -- has been part of the healing process. Every one of these things that has happened has moved us a little closer to being normal again. The rebuilding will take a long, long time and there are still a lot of people who need our support in Tuscaloosa and throughout Alabama. A lot of people are still hurting. But every time we have a big event it is a signal that things are more and more normal. This game is one of those events.

Watch The Tony Barnhart Show Wednesday at 8 p.m. on The CBS Sports Network.


Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.
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