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Alabama has plan to stay atop college football as LSU lurks

When he took over the storied Alabama football program in 2007, Nick Saban's mission was to bring it back to SEC and national prominence.

Two SEC and two national championships later, Alabama is back on top, and Saban's newest challenge for the defending national champions has become finding a way to stay there.

Which is why his message to his players is the same as it was after the Tide's 2009 national title: Staying on top requires focus, remembering what it took to get there, and working harder than before.

"It's very easy to become complacent," Saban said. "That becomes the constant challenge, how do you maintain what you've worked so hard to build? We talk about that a lot. This team still has a lot to prove about how hungry they are."

The top of the SEC's football mountain is generally considered only big enough for one, but Alabama and LSU both occupy some of that space.

"We've got some really good teams in this league, but I think it's fair to say right now those two have proven they have been head and shoulders above the rest," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. "I think we've got some teams that could challenge that, Arkansas for one, but right now I think they've proven it on the field."

Saban hopes his players learn from the problems that befell his 2009 champions after the trophy arrived in Tuscaloosa. It remains to be seen, he said, if this team is "willing to make the sacrifices necessary" to repeat.

Alabama and LSU enter the 2012 season primed to be top contenders again.

"I think it's a real compliment to our body of work," LSU coach Les Miles said about preseason top rankings. "But the kids understand that they've earned nothing. It's like saying to your wife 10 years before you marry her, 'Boy, you sure are cute.' It's one of those compliments that no one remembers before you get to the wedding."

Miles is preaching a message in Baton Rouge similar to Saban's, without a hint of remorse for past failures. LSU defeated eight top-25 opponents last season, including a win at Alabama, but fell short against the Tide in the title game.

"I think there's an understanding that we had the best record in college (13-1), we won the conference, won the Western Division and beat the national champions at their home stadium, so they recognize that they achieved very greatly," Miles said of his team. "They didn't play very well in the last game. I have to be real honest with you, I've never been 13-1. I certainly enjoyed it greatly for a very long stretch, the No. 1 team in the country for 11 straight weeks and (we) answered that bell well. It's hard for me to talk about coming off a season of great achievement with a hangover."

The battle for SEC supremacy will be hard-fought again. Yet Saban, who preaches an "out of yourself and into the team" philosophy, is quick to point out this isn't last year's team. Though Alabama returns nine starters, it lost key players including Heisman finalist running back Trent Richardson, linebacker Dont'a Hightower, defensive end Courtney Upshaw and safety Mark Barron, the Bucs' No. 1 pick.

"I think you have to ask yourself whether it's realistic to think you're just going to reload and replace all of those players," said Saban, who pulled in the No. 1 recruiting class, according to several recruiting services.

LSU returns 13 starters, but has a new quarterback, young receivers and one returning starting linebacker. But the desire for greatness remains.

"I think that there's a real hunger and want to play, and start the season," Miles said. "Anytime you finish a season on a negative note you will turn to the opener, the beginning of the next season, with a real anxious (feeling) and want. I think that's very much the case here."

Alabama has plan to stay atop college football as LSU lurks 07/08/12 [Last modified: Sunday, July 8, 2012 6:34pm]
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