TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Whenever Nick Saban is asked about coaching the defending national champion, his standard answer is that there’s really no such thing.
His reasoning is that the University of Alabama isn’t defending anything because this is a different team. There are new players, a new staff and other different aspects that change from season to season.
It’s coachspeak but also a key part to his approach with the team after winning a national title, and no one is a better expert on the subject in college football. Of the last 11 seasons that Saban has been a head coach at this level, his teams have won it all a whopping five times.
He’s learned the hard way just how difficult it is to repeat.
“When we have lots of people preoccupied with other things like how much they’re going to play or who their agent’s going to be next year or whenever, we don’t seem to do nearly as well,” Saban said in reference to the difference between the 2014 and 2015 finishes.
The first won the Southeastern Conference title; the latter won both the league title and the national crown. Between those two teams, the overall talent level was comparable, but as Saban has repeatedly pointed out, the leadership was not.
Yet here we are, with Alabama again No. 1. While topping the preseason Associated Press Top 25 would have been cause for celebration just about anywhere else, everyone has grown accustomed to such status in Tuscaloosa.
“It’s just another thing out there that the media says,” senior defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson said with a shrug after the Amway Coaches Poll listed Alabama as its preseason No. 1 team earlier this month.
Yet this is a record ninth straight year in which the AP has ranked the Crimson Tide No. 1 during some point of the season and the 44th time since Saban landed at Alabama in 2007—nearly three times more than any other program.
Consequently, Saban has had a lot of practice at deflecting away poll questions from reporters while being continually mindful that success can often lead to complacency. At Alabama, it’s associated with the three-loss 2010 team, the program’s worst finish during its ongoing dynasty.
The polls call also be fickle and almost cruel. The 2013 Alabama team was ranked No. 1 by AP voters 14 times, from the preseason all the way until the last week of the regular season, but didn’t finish there. Conversely, in both 2011 and 2015 it was No. 1 only once, but it was the only time that really mattered, the final poll.
That’s why Saban wants his players thinking about what’s coming up each and every day and not looking past the dangerous season opener against USC (Sept. 3, AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas).
“I don’t think we should have rankings until the fifth or sixth game of the year when somebody can see people play and know exactly how all these things get answered relative to the consistency that you can play with,” Saban said.
“So honestly, I don’t know where we are on a national basis. I don’t really know where we are in the SEC relative to where everybody else is. I don’t even know where we are in the Western Division relative to where everybody else is. The team is evolving.”
Despite often facing a high-profile opponent at a neutral site, Alabama is undefeated in its season openers under Saban. It’s also accustomed to playing in that kind of spotlight on a regular basis and getting every opponent’s best shot.
Besides, it’s not as if Alabama hasn’t had enough distractions heading into the fall. Between arrests, the debate over satellite camps and transfer issues, the Tide have arguably been in the news more than any other program, even attention-demanding Michigan.
All of those issues have helped drown out the discussions about bona fide concerns that could potentially derail the season, like there being six new starters on defense and some depth concerns both on the line and in the secondary. Moreover, except for linebackers coach Tosh Lupoi, the entire defensive coaching staff is new.
“This is the 2016 defense,” defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt said. “It’s not 2015, 2013, 2009, 2010. This is 2016. Our kids are buying into the fact that we’ve not done anything.
“I was here before when we had some success, won a championship in 2009 and the next year we couldn’t hardly get over ourselves. We had a little bit better transition because we’d experienced it before and understood the growing pains. We’ve got to get over ourselves. That’s over with now.”
Offensively, Saban had hoped to name a starting quarterback by now, but nothing appears to be imminent. If anything, the competition has only tightened between junior Cooper Bateman, redshirt freshman Blake Barnett and true freshman Jalen Hurts.
Whoever wins the job will take snaps from a first-time center and hand the ball off to unproven running backs. He’ll eventually have to do so at some of the toughest venues to visit, including Tennessee and LSU.
Those are huge red flags for any team, including the Crimson Tide.
“There’s a lot of tremendous challenges that face every team at this point,” Saban said. “Some of it comes from the people you play, because we play some really, really good teams this year starting with the first game when we play Southern California. But the challenges also come from ourselves, from us.”
Poll voters are giving Alabama the benefit of the doubt because of its recent history and impressive talent. This will be the third straight year that offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will be plugging in a new starting quarterback, and every position group has at least one player who was rated as a 5-star recruit, per 247Sports.
“When you come in, you really kinda got to be able to just adjust to the fact that you might not be playing right off the bat,” reserve linebacker Rashaan Evans said. “But every guy who was before me did the same thing, so you have to have that kind of mentality. Just get better and once the opportunity presents itself, you have to be ready.”
Punter JK Scott is a good example of the kind of potential that Alabama has at a lot of positions. When he’s on, he might be the best in the nation. He was a finalist for the Ray Guy Award in 2014, but his numbers dipped last season.
“Mentally, my freshman year I kind of came in trying to earn the spot, and sophomore year I don’t think there was really a big difference mentally besides preparation in the offseason,” Scott said. “I had a little different way of preparing.”
The key word with Alabama this season is potential, because from Jonathan Allen to Tim Williams, this team has a ton of it, but only if the players can maintain their edge.
Consider that only once has Saban had a team finish undefeated (2009). Only once has he enjoyed back-to-back national championships (2011-2012). And only once has one of his teams coming off a national title met the expectation of its preseason ranking.
“[Whether] we finish on top or if we don’t finish how we want to, each season we’re going to have to come back and prove something to someone, even ourselves,” Tomlinson said. “If we win, we have to come back and prove that we can win again, and if we fall short one year, we have to come back and prove that we want to win and that we can still win.
“So either way you’re going to have to prove something.”
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.
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