1. It’s the Tide. You Might Have Heard.
Alabama is real good at football. It is almost boring how good they are, but not quite. Boring is not the right word. Gravity isn’t boring. It just is. It exists. It’s always there. It is inexorable. Math people will tell you with math: There is football, and then there is Alabama football. This year’s Crimson Tide squad received 58 of 60 first-place votes in the preseason AP poll, and 58 of 62 first-place votes in the coaches’ poll. All of which doesn’t mean much, beyond being fair. Bama is not a trendy pick, but if the point of these things is not to be cunning but to be right, we’re heading into the season with reasonable expectations of excellence. They’ve got a realistic shot of becoming the first team to garner four AP titles in five years.
They’re so good it can feel, at times, like there’s not a lot to talk about. The last time we saw the Tide on the field, they mowed down a well-regarded Notre Dame team in the national title game with nasty, cerebral efficiency. We’re a week away from watching them do the same thing to Virginia Tech. So why are we even here?
Here’s where we got interested: The Tide are also a common feeder team for the NFL draft. It sounds so logical, but it’s not so easy, or every team would do it — Bama sends a number of starters to the pros as juniors, and has been so consistent with winning for so many years now, they have to live up to the reload-not-rebuild label and find the high school prospects who can play to Bama’s standards, and do it early, if they’re to have any hope of maintaining their sterling equilibrium. When you’re an entering freshman, a hometown hero wherever you came from, and you’re thrown into a field of stars, what happens next? We asked senior linebacker C.J. Mosley, senior defensive back Deion Belue, and junior defensive lineman Jeoffrey Pagan, all of whom showed promise and saw meaningful playing time in the first year or two of their careers in Tuscaloosa, what has helped them distinguish themselves in the famed, feared Saban Process.
SPOILER ALERT: To succeed among America’s best collegiate jocks, it helps to be a massive nerd.
MOSLEY: Coach Saban, and Coach Smart, and all the other coaches are going to coach you like you’re a senior on the team. Like you’ve been here before. As a freshman, it’s something you have to adapt to.
BELUE: As a young player, you can’t come in and expect to just play. I just came in and tried to grab ahold of something. I’d tell all the younger DBs the same thing. You get something, learn it, and then move on to the next, but don’t forget.
PAGAN: Everything just seemed a lot faster than what I was accustomed to. Everybody was bigger, faster, stronger. I could’ve gone to a school with guys that weren’t so good, but I want to compete with the best. I had a coach back home, he told me if I wanted to be the best I had to play against the best in practice every day. That’s why I decided to come here.
BELUE: Coming in prepared, and paying attention to details. That’s the main thing that Coach Saban likes. If you pay attention to the details, you’ll have the chance to be successful. And when I finally understood that, it made sense, and everything started to get a little bit easier for me. I came in during the spring, and I had the coaches on me. It was kinda stressful sometimes. But then the summer came, and I had Dee Milliner and Rob Lester, all the older guys, just breaking it completely down, in a way I could understand it.
PAGAN: When I got here, everybody reached out to me on the D-line. My sophomore year was really when Damion Square took me under his arm and taught me. Learning from such a great guy, I couldn’t go wrong. He’s somebody that knows the whole defense. He knew what everybody was doing. I couldn’t go wrong with him in my ear, so I took advantage of that as much as I could. As long as he was here, I was learning, and he was teaching.
So you’ve mastered the Process and won a national title or two. Lovely. Do it again, please, and remember that in this town, this year, a 10-win season will be seen as a bitter disappointment, and your coaches have an annual habit of griping about your team’s offseason work to the press. Now what? “They try and keep us as humble as possible,” says Pagan. “They also tell us that losing is unacceptable. In anything. It’s pretty much not tolerated here.”
You listening, SEC BeachFest sand castle builders?
3. Deleted Scenes
As an anthropological study, players who succeed in the Saban system are fascinating. There was a rumor going around some years back1 that whispered of all things of or relating to Alabama football being controlled by a massively powerful and top-secret supercomputer, code name CYBERTYDE. That feeling you get when you meet a small child who speaks with a native British accent2 and just the way s/he talks conveys an unearned worldliness, even if s/he’s talking about My Little Ponies? You get a lot of that talking to the kids on this roster. Observe how everything comes back to The Process. It’s impressive. It’s kind of unreal. It’s almost enough to make you believe in CYBERTYDE, and to make you wonder whether college football’s premier program bleeds blood or mercury:
That we started.
There’s probably a French word for this.
• Mosley’s favorite title game memory is a study moment gone right. “I’ll say, like Coach says, we always prepare the right way. We always work on certain plays that we think a team might do, and there was one particular play, it was a draw. And me and Trey DePriest saw it perfect. We read the whole play. Just the game plan and preparation, it lets you know how good the coaches are here.”
• When you’re playing in these neutral-site games, in pro stadiums, do you let your imaginations romp to the draft and beyond, just for a second? Mosley: “When we first got there, we got there a day early so we wouldn’t be so in awe when we first got on the field. They just let us walk around and view the stadium. Just to see that big JumboTron and everything, that was pretty cool, but after another day, there was the game.” Belue: “[We’re] just trying to stay focused. Just trying to keep all distractions away. We’re trying to stay on the straight road.”
• How sick are you of hearing about A&M? Are you glad to get that game out of the way earlier in the season this year? Belue: “We really haven’t thought about it like that. It’s gonna come later or earlier, we’re still gonna have to prepare for them.” Pagan: “All the hype and noise around it doesn’t really get to me. We could play them the first game or the last game; our preparation’s gonna be the same.”
• How much truth is there to the tales of Saban allowing title-game celebrations to last only one day? Mosley: “Two days.”3 Pagan: “We don’t really dwell on the past. [But] we celebrated all day, all night. After the national championship, with the season pretty much being over, I guess he kind of was a little lax. He let us enjoy it.” Belue: “He let us enjoy it. Because he does the same thing. He enjoys it also,4 him and Ms. Terry.5 And then as soon as we come back on campus, it’s time to start all over again.”
4. Designated Talisman: Roll Tide
“Enjoys” might be a strong word for Saban. Warren St. John’s profile of the coach in the latest issue of GQ includes an anecdote where Saban tells a golf buddy, after the title victory, “That damn game cost me a week of recruiting.”
Coach’s wife and team matriarch Terry Saban.
When we say “Roll Tide” has every possible applicable meaning under the Capstone sun, we’re sometimes afraid that statement might be mistaken for hyperbole. Here:There are “It’s Not Crazy” spots that are pure whimsy, and there are ones that are straight documentary. This is the latter.
5. Stay Tuned
• Alabama football commences: Saturday, August 31, in Atlanta vs. Virginia Tech.
• Conference play commences: Saturday, September 14, at Texas A&M.
• Required viewing: Not to slight the Tide-Tigers (Baton Rouge varietal) tilt, which is always a good time, but that first conference game (Saturday, November 9) will be the marquee event of Week 3. Since the ascension of Saban to the Crimson throne, the only coach to beat him more than once has been Les Miles.