July 24, 2009 9:00:00 AM
Adam Minichino - firstname.lastname@example.org
HOOVER, Ala. -- Nick Saban isn''t one to offer excuses.
The University of Alabama coach praised quarterback Tim Tebow, coach Urban Meyer, and the rest of the Florida Gators for playing a great game in the 2008 Southeastern Conference Championship game.
Saban didn''t blame his team''s loss to Utah in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2, 2009, to a "blinking light" otherwise known as offensive lineman Andre Smith.
Instead, the third-year coach preferred Thursday to talk about how his "blue-collar team" was going to continue to try to "do the job" as best as possible to get back to Atlanta to win a SEC title and compete for a national championship.
"If you''re gonna win it all, you really have to have great competitive character and do it on a consistent basis," Saban said. "You cannot be up and down or you''re not gonna sustain it in our league."
Alabama survived close calls against Kentucky, Ole Miss, and LSU last season in the regular season before it lost to Florida 31-20 in the SEC title game and 31-17 to Utah in the Sugar Bowl.
The Crimson Tide played their bowl game without Smith, who was a first-round NFL draft pick by the Cincinnati Bengals earlier this year.
This season, Alabama also will have to go without offensive lineman Antoine Caldwell, a third-round pick by the Houston Texans.
Saban said those graduation losses will be the biggest his team will have to address.
"I don''t think you can really replace guys like those guys. I think they were outstanding players," Saban said. "I think the players have opportunities to create their own identity at those positions. James Carpenter showed he could at least be a functional offensive lineman in this league through spring practice. We''re hopeful he''ll continue to develop and improve as his knowledge and experience grows as an offensive lineman. William Vlachos was a good center for us in the spring. But Mike Johnson is the guy that has the most experience and is a real quality player for us. He needs to be a leader who affects other people in this group so our offensive line can develop.
"Every question you ask me about quarterback is gonna come right back to this group. Quarterback is a difficult position to play if you don''t have good people around you, and it starts with the offensive line. I think how this group develops will affect, especially early on in the season, how our offensive team functions."
Junior Greg McElroy and redshirt freshman Star Jackson are the top two candidates to replace John Parker Wilson, who threw 10 touchdowns and 2,273 yards last season.
Saban said he has confidence in McElroy, who he called a "good leader" and "instinctive."
Saban also praised his defense, which lost only two lettermen and returns 28 (of a total of 55). Senior nose guard Terrence Cody and junior middle linebacker Brandon McClain figure to be leaders on that unit.
"Our challenge on defense is these guys have to take it to the next level," Saban said. "They can''t be satisfied."
Not being satisfied never will be a problem under Saban, who believes the SEC Western Division will be "as tough as it has ever been" in terms of competition.
To be the top dog in that hunt, Saban said his players need to continue to understand that they have to learn what to do to become the most effective and complete players at their positions.
If individuals take care of their responsibilities, Saban believes everything will come together.
"We''ve had an outstanding offseason with our team. We''ve had a very good summer with our team," Saban said. "But it''s very difficult to predict what a bunch of adolescents are going to do, and we have over a hundred of ''em on our team.
That''s why we choose to stay focused on the things we need to do to build an outstanding team. You have to have togetherness. You have to have trust and respect for each other and a positive energy and attitude that''s gonna help support the players on your team so everybody has the best chance to play their role, do their role well, and be a productive part of the team. This team chemistry and leadership is very, very important.
"I think it''s also important you establish a work ethic on your team, that your team understands they''re working to dominate the competition. It''s not relative to what they think hard work is; it''s what they need to do to dominate the competition in a very competitive, difficult, tough league, with a very difficult, tough schedule."
n Times set for games against Florida International, North Texas: Alabama will play Florida International at 6 p.m. Sept. 12. The game will be televised on a pay-per-view basis by the Crimson Tide Sports Network (CTSN).
Alabama will face North Texas at 11:21 a.m. Sept. 19. The game will be televised by the SEC Regional Network.
Two other games have been previously announced for television this season, including the 2009 season opener against Virginia Tech and the regular season finale at Auburn.
ABC will televise the Virginia Tech game at 7 p.m. Sept. 5 from the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
CBS will air the Alabama-Auburn game at 1:30 p.m. Nov. 27 from Auburn.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.