Old-style ‘Bama back in title picture

Published 7:00 pm Wednesday, October 1, 2008

TUSCALOOSA (AP) _ When Steadman Shealy watches Alabama these days, it looks ever so familiar. The punishing offense, the relentless defense, the unflagging consistency.

It reminds the former Crimson Tide quarterback of those old Bear Bryant powerhouses from his own playing days 30 years ago.

“They just look more like Alabama, what we expect Alabama to look like,” said Shealy, who played for Bryant’s final national championship teams in 1978 and 1979. “They hit. They’re disciplined. They’re not making mistakes and they’re pretty well finishing it. They’re doing well in the fourth quarter, which back in my day that’s what we did.”

Other similarities: They’re winning games, in the thick of the national and Southeastern Conference title hunts and following the lead of a strong-willed and (increasingly) beloved taskmaster of a coach.

The second-ranked Tide is 5-0 and finally looking like a juggernaut again. Not that ever-confident ‘Bama fans for a moment doubted it would happen under Nick Saban — sooner rather than later.

Is 21 months soon enough?

The $4 million-a-year coach has carried a team that played .500 ball over the past two seasons to its highest ranking in 15 years and demolished then-Top 10 teams Clemson and Georgia.

The team that couldn’t win at the end of the 2007 regular season now can’t seem to lose. So far. Even before this rise Saban was on the cover of “Forbes” as “The Most Powerful Coach in Sports.”

The only one at ‘Bama who doesn’t seem to be enjoying the ride from preseason No. 24 is the all-business Saban, who frequently reiterates winning consistently is “a mind-set” and a “process” and seems entirely unimpressed by the current polls.

He’s not so reticent about the players’ attitude adjustment since his debut season.

“We’ve been trying to build this kind of attitude for 20 months and I think it happens in segments, like climbing up a ladder,” Saban said. “I think more and more guys buy in. I think at some point in time in this offseason, a critical mass of guys based on leadership of the team, and the character and quality players that we have on the team, the incoming guys that we have on the team. … Their character and their quality relative to leadership, setting a good example for them and embracing them into the program.

“All those things have developed team chemistry, based on a set of principles and values that I think a lot of guys are starting to believe in.”

Got all that? It took his players awhile, too. He knows his X’s and O’s but talks like a CEO or the author of a motivational book, which he is.

Tide players said some of the veterans didn’t fully embrace Saban’s methodology after he was hired. Maybe that’s one reason why a strong start deteriorated so badly, with Alabama losing four straight games to end the regular season.

That team lost to Louisiana-Monroe and Mississippi State and had eight players arrested in his first 14 months in Tuscaloosa. This one hasn’t trailed this season.

“There were some people here at the very end kind of set in their ways,” defensive end Lorenzo Washington said. “When a new coach comes in everything has to be done his way. He knows what it takes to get to the national championship and he wants it done his way. He’s the head man. It’s his way or the highway. Obviously there were some people that weren’t following his way so they’re gone now.”

And now? “Everybody’s buying into his system. I think that’s what makes a big difference this year. Everybody has complete faith,” Washington said.

Saban hasn’t done it with a group of seasoned players either. Alabama has nine scholarship seniors, tied with Middle Tennessee for fewest among FBS teams. Only Florida State, Miami and Arkansas have played more than the 15 freshmen that Saban has put on the field.

Three members of this year’s top-ranked recruiting class were instant starters, and freshman running back Mark Ingram has a team-high five rushing touchdowns.

Former Alabama and NFL star Lee Roy Jordan isn’t positive that Alabama is yet worthy of a No. 2 ranking, partly the product of a number of upsets. But, he added, “I think by the end of the year we’ll have a very, very good football team.”

The last time Jordan recalls seeing a Tide team play like this?

“It might have been back in ’92 or somewhere in there,” he said, referring to the program’s last national championship team. “Everybody was really confident and hardworking and believing that they were going to win.”

Other Tide teams have teased fans. The headlines and magazine covers proclaimed “Bama’s Back” after Mike Shula’s 2005 team won its first nine games and rose to a No. 4 ranking. That team fell to LSU (in overtime) and Auburn before bouncing back with a Cotton Bowl win over Texas Tech.

“It’s still so early,” Tide center Antoine Caldwell said. “I remember when we were 9-0 that year and it felt kind of like this where we were beating people. Then you kind of got a heartbreaking loss toward the end. I remember all that. I was telling everybody, let’s take it one game at a time and everybody just calm down. Go out and prepare like we’ve been doing and that’s what this team is going to do.”