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‘Bama faces same expectations, different backdrop

- Associated Press - Friday, July 22, 2011

HOOVER, ALA. (AP) - Trent Richardson keeps a sign in his apartment emphasizing that he "Never Again" wants to experience another miserable loss like last season's Auburn game.

Even more painful memories linger around Tuscaloosa with a city still recovering from a deadly tornado. For that, no special signs are needed.

The expectations are the same as usual for the Crimson Tide this season _ to win the SEC, maybe win it all _ but the backdrop and circumstances have an entirely different feel.

Richardson, Alabama's tailback, draws motivation from what accomplishing those goals might mean to a community where 43 people were killed and more than 5,000 homes destroyed by the tornado that hit on April 27.

"It makes me feel like that," he said Friday at Southeastern Conference media days. "I know the rest of the team is thinking like that. We've got folks out there that lost everything. Folks look at Alabama football, they were born and raised up Alabama football. We're going to try to bring joy back to our community."

In football matters, there's the constant reminders around the football complex of signs ("28-27, Never Again") that popped up shortly after Alabama blew a 24-0 lead and lost to Auburn in the Iron Bowl at Bryant-Denny Stadium. It was a devastating blow for a team that opened the season favored to repeat as national champions but wound up with a 10-3 record that was a disappointment given the program's lofty expectations.

"We can never get over that (Auburn loss)," Richardson said. "It happened, but I feel like that's something we can never put behind us. The simple fact is we were out there winning and we gave it up."

Maybe that memory explains why coach Nick Saban said this team has so far displayed "a little bit" better leadership and more maturity.

The seemingly bottomless well of talent remains in place even though the Tide lost four first-round NFL draft picks, including Heisman Trophy winning tailback Mark Ingram. And quarterbacks A.J. McCarron and Phillip Sims enter preseason camp in an apparent dead heat to replace Greg McElroy.

Still, the preseason predictions by reporters covering the league installed Alabama as a substantial favorite to capture the SEC title.

"You guys are all a lot smarter than we are as coaches because I could never pick who is going to win the SEC," Saban said. "I know there's a couple of other teams in our division _ forget about the league _ that have just as many (starters returning), and their quarterback.

"I don't understand how you come to the decisions that you come to."

For starters, Alabama has won 36 games and a national title the past three years and polished off last season with a 49-7 thrashing of Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl.

Plus, Saban & Co. have brought in annual hauls of blue chip recruits to replace players like first-rounders Ingram, wide receiver Julio Jones, defensive lineman Marcell Dareus and left tackle James Carpenter.

And the defense has five first-team preseason All-SEC picks, led by All-American safety Mark Barron and linebacker Dont'a Hightower.

Richardson, meanwhile, has run for 1,451 yards and 14 touchdowns the past two seasons behind Ingram, and he's already fielding questions about being a potential Heisman Trophy contender.

He shrugs off the hype surrounding the Tide.

"It's like that every year," Richardson said. "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."

Saban's take: The preseason No. 1 ranking in some preseason magazines "means nothing".

"Whatever we do this year, we're going to have to do it on the field," he said.

Alabama was in the same position this time last year. And the defense is drawing comparisons to the 2009 group that paved the way for that national title run.

Used to it or not, the preseason hype still creates a challenge in not getting swept away by the praise.

"We don't really want to see any of that stuff in the media," Hightower said. "Maybe last year, some guys looked too far into it and got a big head. But this year it's not about that. We're trying to stay out of the media and all the All-SECs and All-Americans. We're just trying to get better."

And, as Saban readily points out, there are question marks. The defense is loaded at linebacker and in the secondary, but the defensive line is short on proven pass rushers.

"I think we have some good players coming back on defense that have talent and experience," he said. "Are we going to take that talent and experience and challenge ourselves to a high standard of what we want to accomplish or is that going to create a comfort zone for our players in thinking that they don't need to work as hard?"

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