Tide opens practice with a target on its back

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The crystal footballs were there on the same floor, a quick right turn out of the media room and a short walk down the hallway. But for the University of Alabama and its defending champion Crimson Tide, the latest trophy felt a world away as players and coaches practiced together for the first time in months.

Nick Saban wore his patented straw hat and sleeveless grey windbreaker in taking charge of college football's preseason No. 1-ranked team Friday morning. Day 1 of the Tide's march toward the regular season began as would any other Saban practice during the year -- unyielding consistency being a hallmark of his program. The soon-to-be 62-year-old head coach ran with the cornerbacks, once again providing hands-on instruction, shouting out the coverage and pleading with sophomore Geno Smith to get down when the receiver gets into his route.

Players grunted and winced in the muggy August heat. Veteran quarterback AJ McCarron wiped his brow as he flipped pass after pass to his receivers. He smiled a moment, familiar with the scene. Five years into his time at Alabama, he knows a thing or two about handling triple-digit heat and the weight of grand expectations. In fact, the entire team is accustomed to preseason hype. Their task: Forget the polls and focus on what you can control.

"The fact of the matter is every team is doing exactly what we're doing right now," Saban told reporters after the morning session. "Everybody can get good results or bad results based on what they do. And there's not any team in the country that really accomplished anything as a team this year; they're really not entitled to anything. The achievements that we have are going to be by what we do."

The 2010 season might feel like it was generations ago to some around college football, but the disappointment of that year remains in the shadows of the football facilities at Alabama, the lone gap in an unprecedented run of three championships in four years. The Tide were preseason No. 1 then and loaded with all-stars and future NFL draft picks, but they slipped, lost three games and ended up in the Citrus Bowl against Michigan State.

Complacency, not a lack of talent, was the reason for the drop-off then. As Saban said: "It got very, very difficult for those players to deal with that success, and I do think it affected them."

This year's Alabama team could fall victim to the same issue if it's not careful. Players and coaches are doing their best to avoid it, though. UA consultant Trevor Moawad, a vice president of mindset programs with Athletes' Performance, said the team watched the famous 1990 Mike Tyson-Buster Douglas fight in preparation for the season. In the upset of the century when a heavily favored Tyson, with a 37-0 record, was knocked out by an underwhelming Douglas, who lost his previous title fight three years earlier.

Players watched interviews with both boxers and trainers about the lead up to the fight. Afterward they were asked how Tyson could lose to someone who was clearly less talented. "It was probably less about ability and more about the overall approach to the fight," Moawad explained, the application to the football field being obvious.

"Your habits carry over," Moawad said, "your success doesn't."

Avoiding that sense of entitlement will be key, according to left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio.

"We have not accomplished anything," he said. "Clean slate. It's time to make a move, do something. We all have the same mindset to excel."

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix might have made the biggest play of the national championship game seven months ago, leaping for a spectacular interception against Notre Dame. But the junior safety said even the joy of that moment is behind him now.

"It's in the past," he said flatly. "It's time to move on.

"We really don't look at rankings. We're going to get what we earn, what we deserve."

Only four weeks stand between Alabama and its season-opener against perennial ACC power Virginia Tech in Atlanta. In that time the identity of this team will be forged. Can it capture the same magic as a year ago, or will it end up a similar flop to 2010? When players walk down the hallway, will they get lost in the reflection of the crystal footballs, or will they take a different route to the practice field and resume their work?

"We had players get frustrated out there that didn't get it right the first time," Saban said. "I said, 'Look guys, if we didn't need to practice 28 practices, we'd just go play.' Everybody needs to practice, and everybody needs to improve. The guys that can focus on that do a lot better."