- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 10, 2011

TUSCALOOSA, ALA. (AP) - Alabama’s August to-do list: Pick starting quarterback. Replace Heisman Trophy winner and a few other first-round draft picks. Find left tackle, playmaking receivers and a defensive lineman or two.

It’s almost enough to distract the Crimson Tide from all that national title talk.

Some of the important pieces have changed and a few key questions remain unanswered, but blue-chip replacements keep the preseason conversation in Tuscaloosa consistent.

“We want to come out and win a national championship, to be undefeated,” All-America safety Mark Barron said. “Every time we step out on the field, one of our motivating factors is to be special.”

It didn’t happen with championship-caliber regularity last season when the Tide viewed its 10 wins as a letdown.

The offseason was traumatic with a devastating tornado striking the city in April followed by the May death of left tackle Aaron Douglas in May. Tide players and fans enter this season with heavy hearts _ and high hopes.

Tailback Trent Richardson steps in for 2009 Heisman winner Mark Ingram. There’s less certainty about the fill-ins for the other first-rounders _ defensive end Marcell Dareus, wide receiver Julio Jones and left tackle James Carpenter.

But coach Nick Saban has stockpiled highly rated recruiting classes and won 36 games and one national title the last three seasons. Even he doesn’t downplay his team’s talent level much while asserting that a preseason Top-5 projection “means nothing.”

“Whatever we do this year, we’re going to have to do it on the field,” Saban said.,

Richardson brushes off the preseason hype as old hat.

“It’s like that every year,” said Richardson, who goes from punishing, flashy backup to the offensive centerpiece. “It’s not a shock to me, but at the same time everybody that picked us to win it, we can’t let them down. We can’t let them down at all.”

The biggest reason for all the optimism is a defense that yielded the nation’s third-fewest points last season and features five preseason first-team All-SEC picks. Linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw, safeties Barron and Robert Lester and noseguard Josh Chapman are projected as first-teamers, while players like cornerback Dre’ Kirkpatrick have flashed star potential, too.

“We have one of the most athletic defenses that’s been through Alabama,” Hightower proclaimed.

A new quarterback, a Heisman hopeful runner and a loaded defense is the same formula Alabama used to win the national title two years ago. The combination is also the reason Saban stresses that he wants quarterbacks AJ McCarron and/or Phillip Sims to play “winning football,” making smart decisions and not sticking that defense into bad spots with turnovers.

The sophomore McCarron saw limited action in a backup role last season, while Sims is a redshirt freshman who hasn’t played yet. Both could get into the Kent State game on Sept. 3.

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