They say defense wins championships, and Alabama was only 15 minutes away last football season.
After reducing opposing offenses to rubble throughout a 12-0 regular season, the No. 1 Crimson Tide took a 20-17 lead into the fourth quarter of their Southeastern Conference championship matchup against No. 2 Florida. Alabama dominated the third quarter, outscoring the Gators 10-0, but Florida quarterback Tim Tebow directed two impressive drives to lead the Gators to a 31-20 victory and a spot in the BCS championship game.
Alabama failed to get over that heartache in the Sugar Bowl, falling behind 21-0 in a 31-17 loss to Utah, which explains why motivation for this season can be summed up in one word.
"Finishing," junior middle linebacker Rolando McClain said. "We've got to finish games and finish the season. We didn't finish last year. We lost to Florida and Utah, so we've got to finish as a defense and as a team."
With the exception of the fourth quarter against Florida, the first quarter against Utah and the first quarter against LSU, when the Tide yielded two touchdowns, Alabama's defense was consistently stout and salty. The Tide produced the nation's No. 2 run defense (74.1 yards allowed per game), the No. 3 total defense (263.5) and the No. 7 scoring defense (14.3).
In last season's opener against Clemson, Alabama held the Tigers without an offensive touchdown in a 34-10 win. In an even more highly touted matchup at No. 3 Georgia, the Crimson Tide shut out the explosive Bulldogs in the first half.
Alabama smothered Tennessee 29-9 in Knoxville and shut out Auburn 36-0 in Tuscaloosa to emphatically end a six-year series losing streak.
Nine defensive starters return, including preseason All-SEC candidates McClain, senior noseguard Terrence Cody and senior cornerback Javier Arenas, leading to speculation that this could be Alabama's best defense since the 1992 national championship team. Apparently third-year coach Nick Saban already has heard such chatter.
"The challenge to me on defense is that those guys have to take it to the next level," Saban said. "They can't be satisfied. It's kind of human nature that when you're satisfied and you're ranked high in a lot of categories that maybe you don't challenge yourself as much.
"You get a little complacent and you get a little satisfied, and that can't happen."
Saban is putting a lot of this challenge on McClain, a 6-foot-4, 258-pounder from Decatur, Ala. McClain has started all 27 games his first two seasons, amassing 169 tackles, four sacks and three interceptions.
McClain returned a fumble for a touchdown last year against Kentucky, but replacing former safety Rashad Johnson as the team leader has been an adjustment.
"I haven't always been a vocal leader, but that's something Coach Saban wants me to be now," McClain said. "For the most part I've been leading by example, but anything that benefits the team, I don't mind doing it. I don't mind staying up late and teaching guys plays or going over the playbook with guys."
Senior Cory Reamer and sophomore Dont'a Hightower give Alabama three quality linebackers, and there may be a better trio on the way. The Tide landed arguably the nation's top crop of linebackers in February, and McClain said Tana Patrick, Nico Johnson and Petey Smith have been impressive this summer.
Alabama's only significant question defensively is replacing Johnson at free safety, where sophomores Robby Green and Mark Barron expect to vie.
"We know we have an opportunity of being pretty good, but we're not focusing on how good we can be as a team or a defense right now," McClain said. "We're focused on finishing this offseason. We won 12 games last year but we lost the final two, and those were the biggest two of the season.
"Every game counts, but to lose the SEC championship and then the Sugar Bowl -- we've just got to finish."
Camp start: Aug. 6
Camp objectives: 1. Retool the offensive line following the departures of center Antoine Caldwell and left tackle Andre Smith. 2. Find a playmaker at receiver in addition to Julio Jones. 3. Provide quarterback Greg McElroy a quality game plan for the challenging opener.
Season opener: Virginia Tech in Atlanta on Sept. 5 (8 p.m. on ABC)
Fun fact: Coach Nick Saban is 0-4 at Auburn, but his Crimson Tide could be heavily favored to end that streak in November.