<
>

Embracing history

The ban was lifted and players could finally call it like it is.

"I can say it now," Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner exclaimed. "I'm part of a dynasty."

The Crimson Tide took down the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on Monday night in a manner that left no doubt in anyone's mind; Alabama is a dynasty, and there are no signs of its reign ending anytime soon.

Though coach Nick Saban bristled at the D-word -- dynasty, that is -- his players did not. He could keep ESPN from their television sets in Miami, but he couldn't hide what three national championships in four years means. He couldn't conceal the beatdown the Tide put on Notre Dame and the inevitable shower of confetti that fell from the sky -- along with the praise that bounced off satellites from Sun Life Stadium in Miami to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. Alabama could very well be the No. 1 team in the country next season, in the driver's seat to cruise back to the West Coast, where its run of titles began (next year's BCS title game will take place at the Rose Bowl).

"Two days from now," Saban said after the game had ended, "we have to start on next year."

Alabama will have most of the major pieces back for next season. The biggest pieces on offense and defense -- quarterback AJ McCarron and linebacker C.J. Mosley -- both announced prior to leaving for Miami that they would return for their senior seasons. Even with juniors Milliner, Eddie Lacy and D.J. Fluker on the fence about chasing a three-peat, there's more than enough talent returning to merit hope for another championship run.

If Lacy goes, there's T.J. Yeldon to replace him. The former No. 1 running back prospect in the state of Alabama rushed for more than 1,000 yards and scored 12 touchdowns this season. Lacy, Trent Richardson and Mark Ingram couldn't lay claim to such success in their freshmen years.

Finding replacements for Fluker, Milliner and the seniors who depart will be a more difficult task. There's no shoe-in for Milliner at cornerback, though freshman Geno Smith certainly has the skill to start, and it's a toss-up whether sophomore Austin Shepherd, junior college transfer Leon Brown or a dark horse will win the job at right tackle. In fact, finding a replacement for three of the starting five offensive linemen will likely be the No. 1 priority of the offseason for Saban and offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland.

The defensive line is another issue. Though it hurts to lose the experience of Jesse Williams, Damion Square and Quinton Dial, there's also the chance for improvement up front. Alabama struggled to generate a consistent pass rush at times, and more athletic defensive ends are waiting in the wings, such as Freshman All-SEC choice D.J. Pettway and sophomore Jeoffrey Pagan, who have already proved themselves. A pair of unknowns (LaMichael Fanning and Dalvin Tomlinson) also have a chance to play a role. If Fanning can turn his uncanny ability to suplex ball carriers into an ability to tackle them, he could turn into something special.

Alabama's defense as a whole will stay, for the most part, the same. Mosley will be its shepherd, and it will continue to thrive under coordinator Kirby Smart. The question is how the offense changes.

With a new offensive line, the loss of a veteran tailback, and the return of a senior quarterback plus a slew of talented receivers, will Alabama opt to throw the football more often in 2013? There were times this season when Alabama threw the ball more, and sometimes it looked as if that was a move for the worse.

There were other times when McCarron & Co. looked unstoppable. Thanks to the emergence of Amari Cooper as one of the most talented receivers in the country plus solid possession wideout Kevin Norwood, offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier has the building blocks for something special. DeAndrew White, Kenny Bell, Christion Jones, Chris Black, Cyrus Jones and Marvin Shinn are the receivers we know about. How incoming freshmen Robert Foster, the No. 2 recruit in the ESPN 150, and talented tight end O.J. Howard, who was routinely hailed as the most dynamic offensive player in the class, come into the fold will be interesting, to say the least.

Growing pains and a difficult SEC schedule will likely be Alabama's biggest road blocks to Pasadena. Though the landscape doesn't appear to be the most treacherous in college football, by any means, it certainly has more potential pitfalls than this season offered, starting with back-to-back games against major FBS schools Virginia Tech and Texas A&M. Though there's a bye week in between the neutral-site opener against the Hokies and Alabama's trip to College Station, Texas, it's unclear whether any amount of time can prepare a defense for facing Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. Just ask Oklahoma, which was blitzed by Manziel and the Aggies in the Cotton Bowl.

And as was the case this season, a difficult end of the season awaits the Crimson Tide as they will wrap up against Tennessee, LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn, with only Chattanooga thrown in between. Could Alabama possibly survive Georgia and QB Aaron Murray again in the SEC championship game? Five yards was all that separated the Bulldogs from staying at the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach for the BCS title game.

One betting site already sees Alabama as the 2013 front-runner. PreGame.com has UA as a 3-1 favorite, trailed by Oregon, LSU, Ohio State and Texas A&M, respectively.

But odds are one thing. What happens on the football field is quite another. Talent and numbers might indicate Alabama can repeat, but history is not in its favor. There's a reason only Nebraska (1994-95), Oklahoma (1955-56) and now Alabama have gone back-to-back since 1950. It's been even longer since a school has won three in a row. Saban and the Tide beat back the record book's odds once. A number of questions remain before we can know for sure whether they can do it again.