TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- In many ways, Alabama escaped last season as national champions. The Crimson Tide were a one-loss team with their fair share of holes. It wasn't perfect -- it was just good enough, ahead of the field by a length or two and great at the right moments.
Though the 42-14 beatdown of Notre Dame in the BCS championship game remains fresh in many people's minds as a sign of the Tide's dominance, what came before that was just as telling: a narrow escape against LSU, a heartbreaking loss to Texas A&M, a back-and-forth thriller against Georgia.
Alabama walked the tightrope to the national championship and found solid footing on the sandy beaches of Miami. Every every weakness suddenly became a strength. Under a haze of palm trees and confetti, the Tide appeared to be perfect.
Many of the same issues that beleaguered Alabama remain to this day, arguably amplified by 11 starters packing up and heading to the NFL. If coach Nick Saban thought last season was difficult, he's got an even more challenging task ahead of him.
Talent isn't the question. Because of the staff's success on the recruiting trail the past few years, it never is. For every All-American that leaves, there's a blue-chip prospect eager to step in.
As one SEC coordinator explained: "They're always going to have talented players and they're always going to have them ready to play."
But there is something to be said for experience. Take, for instance, Robert Lester, one of a handful of players remaining last year from Saban's first full recruiting class in 2008. Lester wasn't the most athletic safety -- he was viewed as a throw-in to sign high school teammate Julio Jones -- but he knew the defense inside and out. When Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick and DeQuan Menzie left the secondary for the NFL following the 2011 season, Lester remained to right the ship.
"Every time I'm back there, I'll think, What would Robert have done in this kind of situation?" Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri said.
But Lester is no longer there to say. Neither is Dee Milliner, a former anchor at cornerback. If it weren't for him shutting down half the field last season, who knows what would have happened to an otherwise average secondary?
Deion Belue, Milliner's counterpart at cornerback, was picked on to the tune of 23 completions on 54 attempts. John Fulton, a top reserve, didn't fare much better, surrendering 10 receptions on 21 attempts. It's no wonder that freshman Geno Smith stepped into the role of nickel corner toward the end of the year. The former four-star prospect was targeted 13 times and gave up just three receptions.
Because of a lack of depth at the position, Saban tried three offensive players there this spring. And though former wideout Cyrus Jones has looked promising at corner, one has to wonder how Alabama will compete against so many three- and four-wide receiver offenses in the fall.
It's no secret that Saban isn't fond of spread offenses like those employed by Texas A&M and Ole Miss. Johnny Manziel ran Alabama's defense ragged and the Rebels gave the Tide all they could handle for three quarters last season.
And a lack of pressure on the quarterback made problems worse. Alabama blitzed less than 35 percent of the time and finished 28th in the country in sacks.
"If there's one area Alabama can improve, it's with the outside pressure," said Phil Savage, executive director of the Senior Bowl and former general manager of the Cleveland Browns. "When they've tried to put heat on the quarterback, often times they've had to do it with a blitz package, their zone pressures or bringing in an extra rusher."
Savage, also an analyst for the Crimson Tide Sports Network, said players such as outside linebackers Adrian Hubbard, Xzavier Dickson and Denzel Devall are promising, but the real effort needs to come from up front. The loss of Freshman All-SEC defensive end D.J. Pettway stings in that respect. He was the most promising young pass-rusher on the roster until his arrest and expulsion.
The defense, long the best in the league, is facing a question it never expected: Is it athletic enough to keep up with a changing landscape?
"We might have redefined the kind of players that we want," Saban said on signing day. "… We added fast-twitch pass-rushing athletic guys to the defensive line category, it being a higher priority because of spread offenses, more spread offenses, more athletic quarterbacks, those types of things. The same things that NFL teams are talking about when they play against RG3 or Kaepernick or the guy from Seattle [Russell Wilson] who are athletic, run the ball. We have to be able to adapt to that kind of athleticism. That means we have to be more athletic to do that."
Line coming along
On offense, the problem is the opposite. There's very little question that Alabama is athletic enough, but can it stay competitive in the trenches?
UA lost three of five starting offensive linemen from a year ago and the players tasked with replacing them, while talented, are largely unproven. Neither Ryan Kelly, Austin Shepherd nor Arie Kouandjio have started a college game.
Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker started more than 60 games before the start of last season. They combined to give up just eight sacks and help Alabama's running backs gain a whopping 1,026 yards before contact.
Even under ideal conditions, can anyone expect the same type of production in 2013?
"The thing that really distinguished that group was it had so much experience and it was so solid all the way across the line," Savage said. "Typically you can target one or two or three linemen and say, 'Hey, this is someone we can beat consistently,' and there wasn't really one on Alabama's front."
Saban is pleased with the unit's progress. As he looks at the rest of the team, the offensive line is becoming one of the least of his worries.
"We have some other parts of our team that we really have to be concerned about, trying to get some depth created, but I kind of like the way the offensive line is coming along," he said.
As Savage explained, we'll know everything we need to about the line early in the season. Alabama opens against Virginia Tech before traveling to Texas to face the Aggies. Two weeks later, it's a home date against Ole Miss.
"We will find out very early where Alabama stacks up this year," he said. "If Bama can clear those two games, you're looking at them going on a long stretch."
First, though, Alabama must finish out the spring. Leaders must emerge and a sense of continuity must form. It starts up front with AJ McCarron, who must extend his reach to both sides of the football.
Complacency, the looming elephant in the corner, will be the biggest test of Alabama's will. From McCarron to Saban to the program as whole, the idea is to forget past successes and move on to current challenges.
Alabama will likely begin the season ranked No. 1 in the polls, and that comes with a price.
"They've always got a target on them, a bull's eye," said an SEC coordinator. "You can make your name on them and they face that every week."
"I understand sometimes where they're at," Saban said of his team. "Sometimes you get motivated when you lose something or something gets taken away from you a lot more than you do when things are going well. The challenge is that there are a lot of teams in our league that are hungry, a lot of teams in our league pointing at us and what they'd like to do to us."
Alabama sidestepped the complacency bug a season ago, but can the team do it again? As defending back-to-back champions, how will players keep from getting a big head?
Savage is a firm believer in Saban's ability to hit reset.
"There's literally no carryover from season to season in the NFL," Savage said. "I think he's been able to duplicate that experience at the college level. You won't hear players reference the year before."
Every season is different, and Saban understands that. His team wasn't perfect a year ago, but it was great when it mattered most.
Will the Tide do it again? So far, Saban is skeptical.
"We just don't really have something right now," Saban said. "We need to have a purpose because we want to be good. We've got some things we can accomplish with this team, regardless of what's been accomplished in the past. I don't think we get caught in those traps of not staying motivated and focused."