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‘Bama wants to finish stronger

TUSCALOOSA – Nick Saban hasn’t had to expend nearly so much breath this offseason addressing overblown expectations from Alabama fans hoping for instant championships.

An end-of-season reality check took care of that.

Coach Nick Saban, 7-6 (second year); 113-65-1 overall (15th year).

Last year 7-6 overall, 4-4 Southeastern Conference (T-third West).

Offense New offensive coordinator Jim McElwain inherits an experienced quarterback and offensive line and a solid backfield. The question is who will John Parker Wilson be throwing to? There are plenty of candidates at receiver who still must prove themselves. Terry Grant showed flashes of being a dangerous back as a freshman, when healthy. Wilson has many of the Tide’s career passing marks in sight. However, the Tide was 10th in the league in both third-down conversions and red zone offense.

Defense Six starters are gone from a defense that slipped last season from its typical stinginess partly because of a youth movement. Youngsters will have to step up again to help out returning stars like FS Rashad Johnson and LB Rolando McClain. NG Lorenzo Washington and CB Kareem Jackson also return. LB Prince Hall is suspended for the first three games and several freshmen have been vying to fill vacant spots. Javier Arenas figures to play bigger role in secondary.

Special teams PK Leigh Tiffin and P.J. Fitzgerald are both back. Arenas is one of league’s best return men.

Key losses WR DJ Hall, G Justin Britt, DE Wallace Gilberry, LB Darrin Mustin, CB Simeon Castille, SS Marcus Carter.

Opener Aug. 30 Clemson in Atlanta.

Pivotal game Nov. 29 Auburn.

Outlook Plenty of question marks face Tide, namely experience at certain positions. Who will Wilson throw to with DJ Hall and other top receivers gone? Who will fill in at linebacker especially in Prince Hall’s three-game absence? How will ‘Bama handle a tough opening test against Clemson? Alabama does have the benefit of more familiarity with Saban’s way of doing things after one roller-coaster season. The schedule is tougher, though. Among the biggest games, only Auburn visits Bryant-Denny Stadium and road trips include visit to Georgia.

– The Associated Press

The Crimson Tide’s second-year coach has been able instead to harp on more practical concerns in phase 2 of his rebuilding project î and to land a recruiting class that could become the cornerstone of that effort.

His debut season supplied a treasure trove of teaching tools for a coach who always looks for the lesson. Don’t let up. Stay out of trouble. And whatever you do, don’t lose to Louisiana-Monroe.

“We didn’t finish games. We didn’t finish the season,” Saban said. “We probably played one complete game, and that was the Tennessee game. We were inconsistent and up and down, played up to the good teams, down to the bad ones. We were inconsistent within games. We had big leads and weren’t able to keep them.”

The Tide will try to avoid similar issues this season. For a change, the most reason for early optimisim comes with an offense that returns nine starters, including left tackle Andre Smith and quarterback John Parker Wilson.

The obstacles include an unproven receiving corps and a defense with plenty of new or inexperienced players joining safety Rashad Johnson and linebacker Rolando McClain.

The freshman class, ranked as the nation’s best, also will be heavily relied upon, with potentially 10-plus newcomers likely to have to contribute. They won’t have any time to ease into the college ranks either with the Tide opening against Atlantic Coast Conference favorite Clemson Aug. 30 in Atlanta.

In fact, a schedule with road trips to Georgia, Tennessee and LSU leaves few breaks.

Then again, Alabama didn’t just struggle against the SEC powers. A four-game losing streak to end the regular season incuded defeats to Mississippi State and Louisiana-Monroe and a sixth consecutive loss to Auburn.

Alabama had chances to at least force overtime in all four games going into the fourth quarter. Thus Saban’s mantra about finishing.

“It is something that he is preaching now a lot, that we need to finish, finish, finish,” Johnson said. “It is something that wasn’t a mind-set with guys on the team last year, and it showed when we lost four games in a row, so that is something that we are changing and bringing up a lot more when we are doing our drills and our workouts.”

The Tide has been closing practice daily by working on half- or game-ending situations.

The talk of winning a championship that was so prevalent last year has been mostly pushed to the backburner, which is the way Saban likes it. Center Antoine Caldwell does say he thinks the SEC West is “wide-open” and compares this Tide team to the 2005 version that went 10-2.

Alabama hasn’t won the division since 1999.

“I feel like this is the first year that I can legitimately say that we can compete for the SEC West,” Caldwell said. “I feel like the talent we’ve got this year is more than I’ve ever seen since I’ve been here. The team’s the closest it’s been since I’ve been here.

“Talentwise, we’ve got everything. We’ve got the pieces to the puzzle. We’re just looking forward to getting it done.”

Alabama definitely has one thing that SEC West rivals LSU and Auburn don’t: An experienced quarterback. Wilson is entering his third season as a starter, setting single-season school marks for passing yards and touchdowns each of the past two years.

He has also has made some costly mistakes to go with the stats, including 22 interceptions the past two seasons. Wilson is working under his third offensive coordinator, Jim McElwain, and said one focal point has been not to dwell on it when bad things happen.

“That’s the thing we’ve been talking about as a team, playing the next play,” he said. “Not worrying about anything that’s happened in the past.”

He will work behind perhaps the team’s best unit, an offensive line that includes Smith and Caldwell. Smith, who has made a number of preseason All-America teams, won the Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the SEC’s top offensive lineman as a sophomore.

Plus, tailback Terry Grant rushed for 891 yards and eight touchdowns as a freshman, and Glen Coffee and Roy Upchurch also return in the backfield.

Then there’s the receiving corps. Mike McCoy seems to be the closest to a sure thing among starting candidates at the position. The rest of the group includes talented but unproven players like sophomores Darius Hanks and Earl Alexander and coveted freshman Julio Jones.

“Every receiver we have is going to make an impact,” McCoy said.

Johnson and McClain are the top returnees on a defense that needs immediate help from the newcomers. Johnson had six interceptions and a team-high 94 tackles while McClain fiinshed with 75 stops.

The Tide lost six starters from a defense that was middle-of-the-pack in the SEC, including end Wallace Gilberry and cornerback Simeon Castille.

Linebacker Prince Hall is suspended for the first three games for violating team rules and Zeke Knight was medically disqualified for the season.

That combination makes it even more crucial for a highly regarded group of freshmen to step in at that position.

Cornerback Kareem Jackson and McClain both started as freshmen last season.

“We’ve got a lot of guys out there that are very athletic,” defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said. “We’ve got a lot of guys that have the potential to fit into the pieces of the puzzle.”