In 2009, Nick Saban did what Alabama hired him to by winning a national championship. By going a perfect 14-0, he left no doubt by having the only undefeated team from a major conference. He even did it in the style that Bama partisans have come to know and love, with a ferocious defense and a good enough offense based around running the ball. The cherry on top was that an Alabama player finally won the Heisman Trophy after many years of seeing other marquee programs rack up statuettes.
So what do you do for an encore?
The answer from around the country is pretty resounding: do it again. Only two members of the preseason consensus as of this writing don't have Bama in the national title game again, and of them Phil Steele has them as the first understudy at No. 3 should one of his top two fall. The Coaches' Poll, important far more for its spot in the BCS formula than its track record, gave the Crimson Tide a resounding vote of confidence by awarding it 55 of 59 first place votes.
That last part alone is cause for some amount of concern though. Only one team in the last ten years won the national championship after being ranked No. 1 in the preseason: 2004 USC. Four others have made it to the national title game and lost, and every one of them won ten games. The coaches don't pick turkeys with their top spot, but they aren't great at nailing the champion in August.
There's nothing about that top spot that would prevent the Tide from repeating, of course, as games are won and lost on the field. The field is a place where Alabama is likely to be favored over all of its opponents throughout the season as long as it keeps winning. Almost all of the offense returns, from quarterback Greg McElroy to Mark Ingram to Julio Jones to a good chunk of the offensive line. The defense is the primary place of concern, as only two starters return and one, Marcell Dareus, is in danger of being ruled ineligible at any time over the infamous South Beach party that got the NCAA interested in agents again. His side of the story would lead you to believe he'll be exonerated, but the NCAA works in mysterious ways.
Despite all the losses, Saban is still around, and his right-hand man on defense is back too. Bama paid up to keep Kirby Smart around, and he should be in Tuscaloosa until a head coaching job comes his way. Saban also stocked the team with his kind of talent through oversigning and high attrition, so while almost the entire second team is made of underclassmen, they're just about all VHTs in Phil Steele parlance. The big thing to watch for there is injuries, something that could press the young bucks into service before their times.
The offense should be able to make up for most of the defensive slippage that will occur thanks to the experience and a more wide open system. They're not going to make Mike Leach look like Woody Hayes or anything, but the coaches sound willing to shift more of the burden onto McElroy's shoulders. They protected him in his first year starting with Ingram's and Trent Richardson's rushing last season, but that's not as important this year since McElroy proved himself. The wide array of options on the offense makes it very that Ingram will repeat as the Heisman winner, as he shouldn't have to carry the team for a month like he did last October. However, I'll bet he'd trade a second hunk of bronze for a second crystal football any day.
Ultimately, a lot of Alabama's chances for a repeat come down to managing the immense pressure. Plenty of teams have cracked under it, and it has only gotten worse in recent years as the sport's popularity has grown and more people pay attention. Saban is employing every trick he knows to get guys focused on the future rather than the past, but human nature is a difficult thing to overcome.
In particular, his tactic is to focus on the fact that Alabama isn't really the defending champion. The 2009 championship is a part of the past and can't be taken away by anyone (unless someone uncovers agent-related shananigans like what cost USC's 2004 BCS title). The proper way to look at things is that his team is trying to climb the mountain again; it's not standing on the top fending off invaders.
That's a great line of thinking, and I'll be interested to see how it works. Repeating as champion is so rare in the revenue sports because it's so hard. Even being in the proper mindset won't be enough if there's simply a better team out there.
Whether or not that better team exists remains to be seen, but Alabama has its hiking boots and packs ready for another ascent in 2010.