By Michael Casagrande
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The Alabama football program Mike Johnson entered as a freshman in 2006 hardly resembles the one he'll exit at season's end.
In a decade's worth of swings and misses, the Crimson Tide were not the Alabama teams of past generations. Losses at home were no longer an oddity.
But as Johnson and 25 other seniors play their final home game today against the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, they haven't lost in Bryant-Denny Stadium since they were sophomores. They haven't lost any regular-season game the last two years, in fact.
The survivors of the recruiting classe of 2005 and '06 have seen plenty of defections, arrests and former teammates kicked out of the program. Of the 56 players in those two recruiting classes, 10 are starters. Among those who made it through the meat grinder is quarterback Greg McElroy, still a junior because of a redshirt season.
Alabama Coach Nick Saban will lead his team against the UTC Mocs today. (AP Photo/ Butch Dill)
"We've lost a lot of our class along the way," Johnson said. "People have had to go other directions. Just thankful for the guys that I've come up here with and been through this with. I couldn't be happier with where I'm leaving the program and where this place stands."
Of the 26 seniors, 11 had earned undergraduate degrees before the season. So had juniors McElroy and Travis Sikes.
Coach Nick Saban had a hard time singling out seniors who exemplify the perseverance needed to make it to this finale.
"I would say we're not disappointed in any of them," Saban said.
Unlike the last few top-ranked recruiting classes to come through the program, the groups from 2005 and 2006 had much fewer stars next to their name on recruiting Web sites. Starting linebacker Eryk Anders, who is enjoying a breakout season, was a one-star prospect according to Scout.com. Other current starters, including Johnson and Cory Reamer, were two-star recruits.
"Cory Reamer is a guy who has improved enormously, changed positions, played inside 'backer, outside 'backer, was a defensive back, is probably the biggest contributor on special teams," Saban said. "He's a good leader. He affects other people; it's really important to him. He puts his heart and soul into it and does everything ... about taking ownership for what he's supposed to do."
All three starters in the defensive line are moving on. Ends Lorenzo Washington and Brandon Deaderick arrived in 2005, and noseguard Terrence Cody was a junior college transfer completing his second season with the Tide.
Safeties Justin Woodall and Marquis Johnson took different routes to their starting jobs. Woodall's arrival in Tuscaloosa meant turning down a contract to play baseball for the New York Mets, and Johnson dealt with plenty of doubters before turning into one of the Tide's best pass defenders.
"I think back to when (Johnson) was a sophomore and we were playing Florida State, and you all were saying don't you have anybody else you could put in there," Saban said. "We believed in the guy and worked with him, and he worked really hard himself and has become a really good player, who is very confident in what he is doing."
Johnson leads the Southeastern Conference with 1.50 passes defended per game. That puts him third nationally.
Now that it's almost over, Arenas admits he's thought about the finality.
"Yeah, I have," he said. "I'm trying to make it one to remember, just effort wise and playing the best that I can -- see what the results are. Hopefully, it'll be an astounding performance by me and my teammates. But I'm just trying to make it one to remember."