With all due respect to the 123 other schools that play major-college football, the sport's foreseeable future boils down to one question: Can anyone stop Alabama? The Alabama Crimson Tide, college football's defending national champion, has become the game's "it" team, an all-powerful and impervious Death Star of a program. Alabama has won two of the last three national titles. Its coach, Nick Saban, won another one while he was at Louisiana State—meaning he has won the title in three of the past seven college seasons he has coached. The Tide is a 14-point favorite Saturday over No. 8 Michigan—repeat: a two-touchdown favorite against a top-10 team—in its season opener. The last time Alabama was an underdog was 28 games ago, against Tim Tebow and Florida in the 2009 Southeastern Conference championship game. Result: Bama 32, Florida 13. The stunning volume of victories and championships and NFL draft picks has Alabama redefining college-football success as we know it. How, exactly, does the Tide do it?
The return of Lester at the safety position will help as far as that experience factor. "Robert has been a really good player for us for two years now and continues to be more vocal in terms of his ability to communicate and run the secondary, make the checks, not depend on somebody else to do it for him," Saban said. "I can't say enough about how this is an example of a guy who has worked hard and had all of the right stuff, in terms of perseverance, resiliency in overcoming adversity as a player. He continues to improve and not get frustrated."
"We all work together," he said. "I'm just doing my role, which is, by me being the most experienced, if there's something I see by being here so long, it's my job to get it right. I've seen it before, I've played in the secondary for so long. So I just want to make sure that if there's anything that needs to be changed or adjusted, I'm there to do it." Told that Johnson called him the general, Lester grinned, and he admitted to holding teammates to a standard. "We didn't win a national championship in 2009 or 2011 by being mediocre," Lester said. "There's a standard here that Coach Saban set when he first got here that we all bought into."
Kelly Johnson played in nine games for the University of Alabama last season as a special teams player, but he'll be making a much more visible introduction to Alabama fans Saturday in Dallas against Michigan. The walk-on from Bluffton, S.C., was listed as the team's starter at H-back Tuesday when Alabama coach Nick Saban released the Crimson Tide's official depth chart. UA is working several players at the position, including running back Jalston Fowler. But if UA opens the game on offense in a two-tight end set, look for a not-so-familiar No. 31 to take the field for the opening play. "He's a kid who works really hard and he's a great guy," said offensive lineman Barrett Jones. "He gives it up for his teammates. I think we all are very happy for him because we've seen the way he's worked over the last few years. Not many guys who are walk-ons make it to that level."
At one of the more hotly contested position battles on defense, junior-college transfer Deion Belue landed a spot on the first team at cornerback, edging junior John Fulton to start on the opposite side of the field as Dee Milliner. Belue, a Deshler High product who originally failed to qualify at Alabama in 2010, has received consistent praise from coach Nick Saban and his teammates since he enrolled during the spring. "He can be a home-run hitter any time," Milliner said. "When he catches a pick at practice, he can always run it back. When he did that the first couple times, I was like 'OK, he got lucky.' Then he made it a thing he does all the time."
The prospect of facing Alabama’s beef prompted Hoke to opt for more size up front. Washington (6-4, 302) hadn’t been projected as a starter. "We wanted a little bigger guy at the three (tackle), and we’re moving Campbell (off the nose to tackle). He’s played a lot of ‘three’ the last two seasons or 18 months," Hoke said. "So we wanted a little bigger body, and there are some things that they do that we think it’s important to have a little more physicalness. Jibreel can play three in certain situations, and he can play the rush end, so I think it just gives us a little stronger, stouter front." It also gives them more experience, which Warmack said has been a key to Alabama’s success up front. "If I mess up, I know why I messed up, or I know what technique he’s going to use before he does it," Warmack said. "That’s always the main focus in what you’re trying to get out when you’re practicing."
3. Quarterback AJ McCarron has gone from understanding coverages to understanding the totality of opposing defenses, Jones said. - "A lot of times we talk about what we're seeing, whether I'm helping him learn something about the defense. He's really starting to understand why I'm making my calls and ... he's starting to understand more about fronts and defense in general. It's kind of the next step for a quarterback. You want to learn coverages and then you want to learn what the whole defense is doing."
Experience isn't an issue for the UM secondary as corners Floyd, Countess and Avery join safeties Jordan Kovacs and Thomas Gordon as defensive backs who have made multiple starts during their collegiate careers. Nickel back Avery and right corner Floyd shared the team lead in interceptions a season ago with two apiece. Despite intercepting just nine passes, the Wolverines ranked 16th nationally in pass defense in 2011.
Alabama coach Nick Saban gets credit for running an NFL-style defense. Borges analyzed it by calling it "sound." "They have all their bases covered and have enough within their package to keep the quarterback off-balance with the passing game, which is really NFL-esque," Borges said. "With them, the devil's in the details. It's not always a fancy blitz, although they have a few of those, too. It's how they play their scheme, how they make their keys and their reactions to their keys. It's very detail-oriented."
With the non-conference portion of Michigan's schedule starting out against Alabama on Saturday, and wrapping up with a road night game at Notre Dame later in September, the Wolverines are absolutely looking at the possibility of entering Big Ten play with at least two losses. But Hoke still doesn't see it that way. He again defended Michigan's out-on-a-limb scheduling policy this season, saying games against Alabama and Notre Dame are massive opportunities for his club. And, in Hoke's words, if you want to be the best -- you've got to beat the best. "I think we like it, we like it as a program and I like it personally," he said. "When you want to be the best and be champions, you've got to play the best. Play those programs that are on a high level. As a team, that's just going to make us better when we get in the Big Ten."
Going in to Saturday's game, people are talking about Michigan's depth at tailback and linebacker. They're talking about a potential All-American quarterback. The pundits are discussion what challenges Michigan faces to compete for a national title and conference championship. They're talking about Michigan as a top ten team. They're talking about Michigan Football as we used to experience it. Maybe we've forgotten about it, but this is the way it's supposed to be. There is no drama surrounding this team or its coach. It's just Michigan Football that's on our minds. This is the way it was for us as kids, or for you youngsters the way it was before you were born. This is the way Michigan is supposed go into a season. A united fanbase. A team and players we all care about and want to succeed. A head coach that is not just the face of the program, but a man we actually want teaching our sons and daughters life lessons.
You can tell the game is getting closer based on how offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland and defensive line coach Chris Rumph are treating their respective groups. Not even the third- and fourth-stringers were getting away with mistakes as they went through individual drills.
Alabama's coaches are dusting off their DVDs as they prepare to play No. 8 Michigan in Saturday night's opener at Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The No. 2 Crimson Tide is attempting to get reacquainted with Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges, who worked in the same capacity at Auburn from 2004-07. In 2004, Auburn defeated Nick Saban’s LSU team 10-9 en route to finishing 13-0. In Saban’s first season at Alabama, the Crimson Tide beat Auburn 17-10. The Tide compares Borges’ play calling to former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino, whose system also had an NFL flavor. (ed.- revisionist history national champions PAWWL!)
After a flurry of positive publicity and an outpouring of joy from fans after the decision to scrap the unpopular BCS in favor of a four-team playoff in June, there's been little mention of college football's next big controversy: Who will make up the committee that determines the four teams that will play for the national title starting in 2014? "I don't know the exact way to set the committee," Boise State coach Chris Petersen said. "But I do know this: It's going to be one of the most important elements of the whole playoff system." BCS executive director Bill Hancock said any talk of the committee at this point is conjecture, and that since a playoff was approved it hasn't been formally discussed. College football's leaders won't tackle the topic until the television contract deals and bowl site selections are figured out over the next several months. But none of the unresolved issues with the new playoff, including revenue sharing, will have anywhere near the impact that the committee does. Simply put: It will become the focal point of each and every college football season beginning in 2014. (ed.- wait, I thought playoffs meant the end of controversy in college football?)