|AJ McCarron is the highest profile player returning to Nick Saban's offense next season. (US Presswire)|
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Less than 48 hours after Alabama was crowned as the BCS national champion in New Orleans, Coach Nick Saban called a meeting of the Crimson Tide players returning for 2012.
"I looked around the room and that is when it hit me," said defensive end Damion Square. "There were a lot of great guys who were not walking back through that door."
Running back Trent Richardson, the nation's No. 5 rusher? Gone.
Super linebackers Don't'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw? Gone and gone. Defensive backs Mark Barron, Dre' Kirpatrick and DeQuan Menzie? Gone, gone and gone.
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Seven starters were gone from one of the best defenses in school history, leading the nation at nearly 184 yards per game. That was almost 80 total yards a game less than No. 2 LSU (261.50), which is the biggest recorded gap ever between No. 1 and No. 2 in that category. It was Alabama's best defense since 1962 (170 yards per game), which was a time when offense was considered more a distraction than a weapon.
"Our team last season was very talented," said offensive lineman Barrett Jones. "Very, very talented."
The players had barely unpacked from New Orleans when Saban delivered a message to his sixth Alabama team that was about as subtle as a two-by-four across a crimson helmet.
"The first thing I told them was that the team in this room is not the national champs. This is our team for next year," Saban said. "You were on a national championship team and you made a significant contribution to it. But this is not a national championship team."
Under Saban, who has won two national championships in the past three seasons in Tuscaloosa, every spring has a narrative. The narrative for 2012 is pretty simple: In 2010 Alabama had a very talented team also coming off a national championship. That team, however, suffered because of what Saban called "a sense of entitlement" and "dropped" to 10-3.
Saban's message: This team, even though it has a ring, cannot, must not, and will not feel that same sense of entitlement.
"There were a lot of really good players [on the 2010 team], but we didn't have good leadership because too many people were worrying about their draft stock," said Jones, the reigning Outland Trophy winner. "We didn't remember how we got there. We won the championship in 2009 by working hard. In 2010 we thought we could win it again by just showing up."
To be fair, the 2010 Alabama team had good reasons to think highly of itself. It would eventually produce four first-round draft choices including running back Mark Ingram, the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner. That team also had wide receiver Julio Jones, the No. 6 pick, and defensive tackle Marcel Dareus, the No. 3 pick.
"But you could feel there was something wrong as early as the spring [of 2010]," said Square. "Practices were very sloppy. Nobody wanted to step up or say anything. Nobody wanted the responsibility of being a leader. They would just pass it off."
Now the 2010 team wasn't exactly a disaster. The Crimson Tide was ranked No. 1 when it lost at South Carolina (35-21) in the best game the Gamecocks have ever played under Steve Spurrier. They lost by three at LSU (24-21) when Les Miles pulled several rabbits out of his well-worn hat. They led Auburn, the eventual national champion, 24-0 in Tuscaloosa before Cam Newton brought the Tigers back to win 28-27.
Alabama used that historic loss and a 49-3 thumping of Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl to mentally set the table for the championship run of 2011. But the fact that a 10-3 season is seen as a disappointment and a motivational tool speaks volumes about where the Alabama program is after five seasons under Saban.
"I understand that it's only human nature to be satisfied with success," said Saban, who is 48-6 (29-5 against SEC competition) over the past four seasons. "The good news is that this team doesn't seem to have as much of a hangover [as the 2010 team]. But I know this is something we're going to have to hammer home into their heads every day."
One of the reasons the 2012 team might feel a little less entitled is that the most high-profile players are lunch-pail guys. Jones is moving from left tackle to center. It will be his third different position in three seasons. For the third consecutive year Jones spent his spring break on a mission trip helping poor kids in Nicaragua.
"I think [moving to center] shows I can play more than one position, but I just wanted to do what helped the team the most," Jones said.
D.J. Fluker at right tackle (22 starts) and Chance Warmack (26 starts) at left guard are as solid as they come, said Saban.
"Those three guys just want to knock the crap out of everybody on every play so you don't worry about them," Saban said.
Sophomore Cyrus Kouandjio played in eight games as a redshirt freshman last season before suffering a torn ACL. Still, he's being moved to the all-important left tackle position to fill in for Jones. Yes, he's that good.
The highest profile guy on the offense is quarterback AJ McCarron, who had his coming-out party with 234 yards passing in the 21-0 win over LSU in the BCS championship game. He redshirted as a freshman in 2009 and played behind Greg McElroy in 2010.
"In 2009 we had a team, but it was the first time Alabama had won a national championships in a long time [since 1992]," said McCarron. "We celebrated too much for too long. We split away from team goals and started worrying about individual goals. We definitely cannot have that happen again.
"We have lost most of our big name guys. We have a lot of very good guys but they are under the radar. They feel they have something to prove."
Because of all the big-name losses at Alabama, LSU will probably be favored to win the SEC West again and will likely be a preseason No. 1 this summer. The schedule has also flipped as Alabama has to go to Arkansas on Sept. 15 and LSU on Nov. 3. So if you had to bet, you'd guess that Alabama of 2012 might look something like 2010 despite Saban's best efforts and those of the players.
But a Nick Saban team that thinks it has something to prove? That could be very, very interesting.