HOOVER, Ala. — It is an annual tradition at SEC media days, the hotel lobby jammed full of folk in crimson. They stand together for hours in a roped-off area in the center, anxiously watching first the entrance and afterward the escalators, hoping for a glimpse of – or even better, and could this really happen? – a moment with Alabama's head coach.
Thursday afternoon, when Nick Saban left the building, he paused to sign only a few autographs. If he seemed slightly annoyed at the ritual, he'd just spent most of the day deflecting questions about a more recent, and more important tradition. The Crimson Tide has won three of the last four BCS national championships, thrusting an already storied program into discussion of college football's greatest dynasties.
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Alabama is favored to win it all again this year, which would be unprecedented. Of course, Saban wanted nothing to do with any such talk, either of the past or any future beyond the opener August 31 against Virginia Tech. What would winning three consecutive national championships mean?
"I don't ever think about it in that regard," he said. "I never, ever do."
And he launched from there immediately into a discussion of "the Process," his all-encompassing philosophy of building and maintaining a college football program. Let others talk about where Alabama would rank among college football's greatest dynasties, or where it already ranks.
"Right now," he said, "I'm worried about this season coming up."
In the SEC's preseason media poll released Thursday, Alabama far outpaced Georgia 182-38. The overwhelming margin wasn't surprising; the Crimson Tide is also expected to top national preseason polls when they're released next month. But Saban had a countering statistic at the ready: In the last 21 seasons, he said, the media polls have correctly picked the eventual SEC champion just four times.
"If I was 4-17, I would be back in West Virginia pumping gas at my daddy's gas station," he said.
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Instead, he's 154-55-1. In the last four seasons, Alabama is 49-5, and it's poised to do something no college football program has ever done – not even Alabama. But Saban, who has won four national championships (including one at LSU in 2003) doesn't want to be compared with Paul "Bear" Bryant.
"I don't think I have any reason that anybody should do that," Saban said. "I think Bear Bryant is probably the greatest coach in college football in terms of what he accomplished, what his legacy is. … There's no way that we have done anything close to what he's done in terms of his consistency over time, how he changed what he did to impact the times."
After the 2009, '11 and '12 seasons, Saban hoisted the crystal football, grinned slightly – and got back to work.
"Just because you were successful," Saban said, "it doesn't mean you're gonna continue."
The SEC has seven consecutive national championships, won by four different schools. Alabama's recent dominance threatens to alter the league's preferred narrative – instead of the conference's overall depth and strength, the story line becomes Saban's dynasty – but it's also deceiving. In each of the last two seasons, Alabama needed a little good fortune or the dynasty would have been derailed.
Last year, if not for losses on the same late November Saturday by Kansas State and Oregon, Alabama wouldn't have been positioned to defend its title. Then, in the SEC championship, the Tide barely outlasted Georgia's rally, which fell 5 yards short as time expired.
"There's five or six plays," Saban said, "that sort of can define your season and make a difference in the season."
Five or six new players might make a difference this season, too. The Crimson Tide must replace three starters from an offensive line that was as dominant as any in recent college football history, a couple of standout defensive linemen and an All-America cornerback. But as Saban begins his seventh season at Alabama, the "Process" seems to have evolved into plug-and-play: top-flight recruits become stars, then head to the NFL and are replaced by top-flight recruits who become stars, and so on.
With a team led by senior quarterback A.J. McCarron and All-America linebacker C.J. Mosley, the biggest challenge might not be the opener with Virginia Tech, or the rematch with Texas A&M, or any other SEC rivals. It's complacency. To understand why, go back to 2010, the only season in the last four in which the Tide didn't win the national championship. After winning 19 consecutive games, Alabama lost to LSU and eventually finished 10-3.
"After we won that many games, it got very difficult for those players to deal with that success," Saban said.
McCarron said remaining hungry is something the Tide's seniors have emphasized throughout the offseason. (For his part, Saban said he was concerned during spring practice, and especially by a "sloppy" spring game, but has been encouraged by the determination he's seen more recently from players.) And although Alabama's players, mindful of 'the Process,' are typically careful when broaching the subject of another national championship and historical significance – they usually will not say "dynasty," and senior guard Anthony Steen admitted Thursday he's "scared to death of" Saban – McCarron didn't shy completely away.
"Everyone goes through their era in college football," McCarron said. "Miami was good for years, then Florida State, then Nebraska. Everyone has their time and then it falls out after two or three years. Our thing is, why does it have to leave?"
But Steen admitted it has been difficult to avoid getting sucked into the hype.
"It's in the back of everybody's mind, for sure," he said.
Saban clearly aims to keep it there. He said his focus turned to the 2013 season soon after the Crimson Tide had finished a 42-14 walloping of Notre Dame last January. "Maybe that night," he said Thursday. And if for other coaches, the annual media day chores seem to indicate downtime is over and it's time to get back to work, for Saban it seems as though the three hours of nonstop talking is an unwelcome break from work that otherwise wouldn't have paused.
Maybe that's why when the interviews were finished Thursday, Saban did not linger long in the Hyatt Regency lobby. Or why, as one fan wore a giant replica of an Alabama championship ring on his head, Saban had only a wedding band on his hand. Why doesn't he ever wear any of the four BCS championship rings he has earned (including one at LSU)?
"Because I let the players design them," the coach said, "and they're about as big as ash trays."
Saban laughed – then got serious again.
"I'm happy about (the Tide's success and most recent title)," he said. "I enjoyed it, but it's kind of over and done with now. You're looking to the next challenge – and there's certainly a lot of them out there."
George Schroeder, a national college football writer for USA TODAY Sports, is on Twitter @GeorgeSchroeder.
VIDEO: AJ MCCARRON ON UPCOMING SEASON AT SEC MEDIA DAYS
Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron talks to the media about the upcoming college football season.