The Mental Preparation for Alabama's 2011 Season

"Every time you think of winning the national championship— stop. Instead, think of what you have to do to dominate your opponent for sixty minutes."

In slightly more than a month Alabama football will return to our lives once again at long last. This final 32 days should race by pretty quickly with actual news out of fall camp across the country. All those projections and prognostications based on nothing newer than Spring practice performances will get filled with actual on-the-field information until we behold the kickoff of the season opener and it starts getting set into stone.

Yet, before we look forward it might be worth our effort to take a moment and look back and see where we were last year. In August of 2010, Coach Saban's oft invoked response to being asked about the Crimson Tide's chances of repeating became something of a running joke in the national sports media.

"What was accomplished by last year's team has nothing to do with this year's team," he said over and over but nobody seemed to really believe him. Poor mouthing was a tactic perfected by Paul W.Bryant so it wasn't like a powerful precedent for it didn't already exist in Tuscaloosa.

The lesson of how little a championship pedigree matters was made abundantly clear on Nov. 26. A game firmly in hand in the first half went completely off the rails in the second. Just like Coach Saban said four months prior, the performance on the field cemented the 2010 team's identity. Even one of the most dominating bowl performances by an Alabama squad in January did little to ease the sting of the season.

What transpired last year was a very good Alabama season. One that the disappointment of the particular losses mars the ability to look at with any objectivity right now but, when placed in historical context, will be seen in a positive light. For now the 2010 season is defined by the fact it was not a great season. And that's the standard Alabama holds itself to once again.

Last off season Spencer Hall noted that the great paradox of success and how it sows the seeds of its own failure can be boiled down in football to the simple axiom "Someone wants to kick your ass more than you want to kick theirs." And when that somebody shows up on Saturday, it's takes more than a crystal football in the trophy case to carry the day.

Four times during the 2010 campaign, Alabama found themselves with their backs against the wall. Only once were they able to dig deep and find a way to win despite the odds against them. It may have been the worst possible state of affairs for a team struggling with its identity. Winning with less than your best can be the kiss of death, Saban says, since, "you have a lot of improving to do but not the right frame of mind with which to accomplish it."

Of the three losses none hurt more than the last. While Coach Saban's axiom concerning past accomplishments obviously applies to this season, it's important to known when to look to the past to improve the future. Adversity, Coach Saban insists, creates opportunity. And that's never been more of a factor for an Alabama season than what we will see unfold over the next six months.

Here at Roll Bama Roll we make a point of avoiding the usual sports writing boilerplate. Case in point, the whole point of my Alabama by the Numbers series is to set aside as much of the oft-invoked intangibles as possible and take a gimlet-eyed look at the data. But at some point the intangibles are part of the game.

Those incessant platitudes we write off as "coach speak" actually have a point. The hard part is getting it across and in the past, Coach Saban has gone as far as hiring a professional firm to conduct mental conditioning and development seminars for the team.

We hold Coach Saban responsible for the mindset of the team and that is partially correct. His job is to let the players know where their heads should be at in order to win and then to keep them there once they get them there. Yet the key to success comes from a decision on the part of the players.

An investment and commitment to the project of being a championship team must start from the players and must extend across the entire squad. Without that, no matter how many times Coach Saban hurls that straw hat to the ground during workouts will matter.

This process of the team developing it's identity it is almost impossible to quantify. The evidence is only there in the performance. It's part of the reason we wait impatiently through the long long off season and anticipate the return of football with an almost childlike impatience. We can scry through all the data and debate all the conclusions and none of it will matter a whit unless the decision is made by the men who have earned the right to wear those crimson jerseys.

This season, as Todd has pointed out, offers a fantastic opportunity for Alabama to make a run for the National Championship. The pieces are in place for the Crimson Tide to have an amazing season if the team put their minds to it.

And, according to Coach Saban, to do that they have to forget about the possibility of playing in New Orleans on Jan. 9, 2012."Whenever you think about winning the National Championship - stop. Instead think of how you are going to dominate your opponent for sixty minutes."

Last year, I found that while I was looking forward to the 2010 season, it was more because I wanted to see an end to the doldrums of the off-season. There was a lot to savor in the wake of the 2009 National Championship and the days leading to September were full of fantastic reminders of what had transpired that previous season.

That's not the case for 2011. I want the season to get here right now because I am ready to see this team do what they are capable of. And I am counting each and every day until it happens.

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