Nearly 10 months after Alabama succumbed in last season's Iron Bowl and missed out on the College Football Playoff for the first time, Nick Saban's Crimson Tide have never seemed more driven and unified.
Alabama experienced another exodus of early departures to the NFL in January, when the likes of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, tackle Jedrick Wills, receivers Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs, and safety Xavier McKinney bypassed their remaining eligibility, but there were also plenty of key components who returned. Running back Najee Harris, receiver DeVonta Smith, tackle Alex Leatherwood and inside linebacker Dylan Moses chose to come back and redeem the program after last season's slippage to 11-2.
Those decisions to return were followed two months later by the outbreak of the coronavirus.
"When I make a decision, I stand firm with it," Harris said on a recent Zoom call. "I wanted to come back with my team and just grind it out through another year. We didn't know what was going to happen.
"I feel like we've got a really good team, and, no matter what, I'm happy I came back."
Alabama also had both coordinators — Steve Sarkisian and Pete Golding — return for the first time since 2015, when the stability of Lane Kiffin and Kirby Smart helped lead the Crimson Tide to that season's national championship.
The Southeastern Conference will begin its 10-game schedule consisting solely of league games this Saturday, with the seven head-to-head matchups including Alabama's trip to Missouri (7 p.m. on ESPN).
More than two dozen SEC players have chosen to opt out of this 2020 season due to COVID-related concerns, most notably Georgia quarterback Jamie Newman, LSU receiver JaMarr Chase and Texas A&M receiver Jhamon Ausbon. There have been a handful of SEC players who opted out before opting back in, but there hasn't been a hint of such discussions in Tuscaloosa.
"Not once did I think about that," Harris said. "There are concerns. There are so many uncertainties, but it is what it is."
Saban hasn't detailed player absences this preseason as a result of positive COVID tests or contact tracing, and perhaps there hasn't been much to reveal. His announcement last week of daily coronavirus testing was well-received by his players.
"He's doing everything he can to make sure everybody stays negative," sophomore defensive lineman DJ Dale said, "and he's giving us the confidence to be able to practice around each other."
Said senior offensive lineman Landon Dickerson: "Testing every day gives everyone here a peace of mind that the people you're going to be around aren't positive."
Saban's "one voice, one message" method has been especially evident in recent weeks, leading the team on a social justice demonstration on campus and taking on all questions about why football should even be played this season.
"People love football in the southeast, whether it's high school football, which can be the social center of a community," he said. "Sports tied our town together when I was growing up in Monongah, West Virginia. The last guy turned the lights out, because everybody went to the game. People love sports and they identify with competition, and it's been a part of our society since the Greek days.
"Is it more important than public safety? No, I don't think so. Is there a way we can do this and keep people safe? I don't think that we should not try. Everybody acts like we want to play for the money, but we want to play for the players. We have a lot of guys on our team who can create a lot of value for themselves by playing this season."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.