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Jul. 24—All Alabama needed was last September's opening kickoff.
The Crimson Tide created pleasant memory after pleasant memory last football season in racking up a 13-0 record that culminated with a 52-24 trampling of Ohio State for the national championship. Alabama's 10 regular-season wins at the expense of Southeastern Conference foes established a record that may never be topped, given the scheduling adjustment that transpired due to the coronavirus outbreak, which required countless testing and numerous protocols.
Want the smile to disappear from the face of senior defensive end Phidarian Mathis? Ask him to recount those late, late summer weeks leading up to the 38-19 win at Missouri.
"Going into the season and not knowing if we were going to play or not was really tough," Mathis said last week at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Alabama. "We were making all those sacrifices and practicing not knowing if we were going to play. We were always on Zoom, and people started getting frustrated. I know a lot of teams got frustrated, but we wound up handling it really well.
"We didn't cry. We wanted to play, which is why things happened the way they happened last year."
Alabama's handling of the pandemic was remarkable, as the Crimson Tide's closest regular-season game was a 63-48 win at Ole Miss. The leadership and wisdom of coach Nick Saban was never more evident, but there was also a wealth of roster experience that was reflected at awards time when senior receiver DeVonta Smith won the Heisman Trophy and quarterback Mac Jones, running back Najee Harris, center Landon Dickerson and left tackle Alex Leatherwood were recognized as the best players nationally at their positions.
Some seasons under Saban have involved more turnover than others, and he is sounding the rebuilding alarm this summer loud and clear.
"The penalty for success when you win a national championship is you won because you had a whole lot of good players," Saban said. "They were well-coached, so you had a lot of good coaches. When you lose some of those players, and we lost six first-round draft picks and 10 guys overall in the draft, and you lose some of those coaches to better opportunities, the challenge is you've got to rebuild with a lot of new players who will be younger and have new roles.
"That's why rebuilding is a tremendous challenge. That's why it's very difficult to repeat, but I've been pleased so far with the way our players have embraced their new roles and new responsibilities."
Alabama will have eight new starters on offense, which is now under the direction of former Penn State and Houston Texans coach Bill O'Brien. Sophomore Bryce Young is the projected successor to Jones, having played sparingly last season and having completed 13 of 22 passes (59.1%) for 156 yards and a touchdown.
Running back Brian Robinson Jr. used the extra year allotted by the NCAA due to the COVID-19 pandemic and is back for a fifth season, while junior John Metchie III is the top receiver and his team's premier weapon at this point.
"We've got a good offense, and we've got a good system," Saban said. "We've got a good philosophy. Bill has certainly added to that in a positive way, and we'll probably continue to make some changes, but our offense was very, very productive, and we want to continue to run the same type of offense and feature the players that we have who are playmakers who can make plays.
"I think Bill will do a good job of that."
Alabama opens Sept. 4 against Miami in Atlanta and faces Florida in Gainesville on Sept. 18. Fortunately for the Crimson Tide, they have a defensive blend of returning talent and impactful newcomers to combat that tricky start.
One potential defensive lineup to face the Hurricanes inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium would contain DJ Dale at noseguard, Mathis and LaBryan Ray as the ends, Will Anderson and Christopher Allen as the outside linebackers, Christian Harris and Tennessee transfer Henry To'o To'o as the inside linebackers, Josh Jobe and Kool-Aid McKinstry as the cornerbacks, and Jordan Battle and DeMarcco Hellams as the safeties. Such an imposing collection doesn't even include linebacker Jaylen Moody and defensive back Malachi Moore.
Pete Golding is back for his third season as defensive coordinator, leaving Mathis thrilled about that and eager for the defenders to take charge on a team Saban considers a work in progress.
"We've got to start somewhere, right?" Mathis said. "We've just got to reload and get all of our younger guys on the same track. We want to see who can do what and build our team chemistry.
"Last season was fun, but it's a whole new year. We've got to step up and do even better than that."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.