Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - For most programs, an 11-2 record and a trip to the Sugar Bowl would be considered a rousing success.
For the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide, however, the 2013 campaign has to be considered a slight step backward for the country's premiere football program.
The stars seemed to be aligned early on in the season for Alabama, which had won the BCS National Championship in 2009, 2011 and 2012 under head coach Nick Saban. With the return of senior quarterback A.J. McCarron and the nation's most-feared defense, the squad was unsurprisingly ranked No. 1 in the 2013 preseason poll and lived up to that billing with 10 straight wins to open the season, which included a pair of shutout victories over Ole Miss (25-0) and Arkansas (52-0) as well as a 38-17 romp over archrival LSU.
The Tide had cleared a path to yet another national championship game appearance. All they had to do was defeat Auburn in the Iron Bowl on Nov. 30 to move on to the SEC Championship Game, and that prospect seemed likely as they led by a touchdown in the final minute before fate stepped in on behalf of the Tigers.
After Auburn tied the score 28-28 with 32 seconds left on a 39-yard touchdown pass from Nick Marshall to Sammie Coates, Alabama strung together a couple of nice plays to set up a game-winning field goal attempt for Adam Griffith from 57 yards away. But when his kick fell short, the miss was corralled by Chris Davis and returned 100 yards for the go-ahead score as time expired for one of the most miraculous finishes in college football history.
It was a demoralizing blow for an Alabama team attempting to become the first three-peat national champion in the BCS era. Unable to compete in their conference championship game, the Crimson Tied had to settle for an at-large BCS bid to the Sugar Bowl, but a team so accustomed to fighting for the nation's top prize found it difficult to get up for what ultimately turned into a consolation game of sorts for the checked-out squad, as it was embarrassed by Oklahoma, 45-31.
The memory of last season cannot fade quickly enough for the Tide as the start of the 2014 campaign gets closer, but while a rebound is certainly on Saban's mind, is his squad well-equipped enough to live up to his sky-high standards?
Saban admits his squad may have become complacent with its elite status over the years and that an attitude adjustment is in store.
"When you win a lot, sometimes you don't continue to emphasize those very things that created the success to start with," Saban said. "Everybody just sort of loses a little respect for those things, whether it's attention to detail, discipline and execution, giving effort, finishing plays, preparing for the game like you need to. (We need to) go back to the beginning and make sure we're doing the things that maybe we lost some respect for that are the very things that helped us be successful to start with."
If anyone can lead a team back to the top, it's Saban. After going a perfect 14-0 in 2009 en route to the national title, the Tide slipped up to just 10-3 in 2010 only to bounce back for another BCS championship in 2011.
However, with a change under center in 2014, a return to the title game might not come so easily.
While A.J. McCarron may have been deemed simply a "game manager" during the Tide's 2011 championship run (2,634 yards, 16 touchdowns, five interceptions as a sophomore), he eventually evolved into the most prolific passer in program history, culminating in a senior season in which he completed 67.3 percent of his attempts for 3,063 yards with 28 TDs to only seven picks.
The competition to replace McCarron at quarterback will come down to Blake Sims and Jacob Coker, the latter set to graduate from Florida State in a few weeks and complete his transfer in time for the upcoming season.
Coker, a 6-foot-5 Mobile, Ala., native who backed up Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston last season, is not officially a member of the team just yet and was unable to compete in the spring game earlier this month, but even in his absence he gained a leg up on the competition, as Sims failed to impress by completing just 13-of-30 passes for 178 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.
The quarterback battle will surely heat up as the summer months go on, but for now Saban isn't discouraged by Sims' poor play.
"Nobody ever has a bad spring game," Saban said. "I think everyone needs to understand that in games like (this), we really limit what we do on offense and defense and we really don't feature players. I think that may be a little bit of a disadvantage sometimes to our players. With Blake Sims, there are probably some things that he can do as a quarterback that we really don't feature in this game ... Blake had a really good spring."
The good news for Alabama is that its turnover at other positions will be slightly lower than in years past. Sure, safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, linebacker C.J. Mosley and offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandijo are all expected to be off the board in the first two rounds of the upcoming NFL draft, but that's nothing new for a squad that has churned out plenty of professional talent over the past decade.
The 2014 version of the Tide welcomes back both their top rusher T.J. Yeldon (1,279 yards, 14 TDs) and best receiver Amari Cooper (45 receptions, 736 yards, four TDs). The defense is expected to return to an elite level once again, anchored by Landon Collins (70 tackles, two interceptions, two forced fumbles), Trey DePriest (65 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss), A'Shawn Robinson (8.0 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks) and Denzel Devall (30 tackles, two forced fumbles).
The program also has continued to be the best in the nation on the recruiting trail. With 26 commitments joining the squad in 2014, including an eye-popping six of the five-star variety (no other team locked down more than three five- star recruits), Alabama secured the No. 1 recruiting class for the fourth consecutive year, according to Rivals.com.
Despite the heartbreaking end to last season and the uncertainty at the quarterback position, Saban and the Tide have been at this long enough to trust they'll be back in the thick of things come the fall.