Red Elephants have reason for optimism

In the preseason polls, three SEC West teams occupy the last three slots in the preseason Top 25 poll - Alabama at 8, Ole Miss at 9 and LSU at 10. There's little wonder The Wynfrey Hotel lobby was jammed with Bama fans hoping to get an autograph from Bama Coach Nick Saban at the SEC Meetings in Hoover, AL.

Coming off a 12-2 season in 2008, and having players like DT Terrence Cody, WR Julio Jones and LB Rolando McClain coming back for the 2009 campaign, you would expect the scene witnessed at SEC Media Days in Hoover, AL, Thursday.

The lobby of The Wynfrey Hotel was jammed with enthusiastic Alabama fans hoping to get a glimpse of Coach Nick Saban, McClain and OL Mike Johnson, who were here to talk about the upcoming season.

Despite losing their final two games last year, to Florida in the SEC Championship game and to Utah in the Sugar Bowl, Bama fever is alive and well in these parts.

Saban is deified and players are given the status of Greek gods.

The adjoining Galleria Mall has a shop that sells nothing but Alabama garb and business is brisk, to say the least.

After all, Birmingham is Bama country and as we all know, Tide fans are not only zealots, but sometimes delusional.

Florida is the prohibitive favorite to win the SEC and the national title among the hundreds of media members locked away in the Wynfrey, but within a few yards, the feeling is different with fans chanting "Roll Tide!" as Saban, small in stature but big in presence, strolls by going from station to station for endless radio, TV and print interviews.

While everything is a frenzy around him, when Saban takes the podium, he's no-nonsense and collected.

"Our team will be built on a few things that are critical," Saban began. "One, togetherness, trust and respect for each other. Buying into the vision of success as a team is number one. Two, work ethic. I'm not talking about what the players think is hard work. I'm talking about work being relative to what it takes to dominate the competition in a highly competitive environment.

"Three, the development of players. We have young offensive linemen who have to develop and we have a new quarterback. When I get questions about quarterback, it will all be relative to the play ofour offensive linemen. We need more consistency out of our wide receivers other than Julio Jones. We must not get complacent or satisfied on defense. We have to take our defense to the next level while our offense is developing. On special teams, we were sporadic last year and played 14 freshmen. Hopefully, they have gained some maturity and we'll do better in those areas."

Saban was reserved in his assessment of his team in terms of any kind of prediction.

"I know you guys (the media) will go about making your predictions after the Media Days. Well, good luck," he continued. "Predicting what 100 adolescents will do is beyond my capability and that's what every coach is dealing with in our league.

"Some of you have children. Can you predict what they will do? Neither can I."

Nick believes the SEC West will be the most challenging "ever."

"The SEC West is as strong as it has ever been, in my opinion. Look at the preseason polls. Eight, nine and ten are all in the SEC West," he said. "We have great coaches and great players on our side of hte conference.

"Houston (Nutt) has done a great job at Ole Miss and has a lot of returning players who won a lot of games last year. Les (Miles) has continued the winning tradition at LSU and has as many athletes as anyone. Auburn has good players. Arkansas started developing at the end of last year and will be tough this year because Coach (Bobby) Petrino has worked out the rough edges of transition.

"This league has a lot of parity now and that's what makes it great. That is why I preach to my players that consistency is the key. You can't be up and down. You have to be focused and play your best every week without exception."

Saban is ready to get things going.

"I had a great vacation with my wife, but I am glad to get back to work and be around some people who will listen to what I say," he quipped in a rare show of humor.

The Bama nation is listening.

Or yelling in the lobby of The Wynfrey.

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