- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- For a place its critics insist is hopelessly consumed with the past, Alabama has never been more excited about its football future.
Well, at least not since an icon by the name of Paul W. "Bear" Bryant was roaming the sidelines, which was 26 years and eight head coaches ago.
Everywhere you turn in Tuscaloosa, there are reminders that it's a new day, a new game and a new way of doing things.
One of the waiters at the original Dreamland restaurant, which is to barbecue ribs what Augusta National is to immaculate fairways, was sporting a crimson shirt earlier this week that read: A New Beginning.
"That spring game will be here before you know it," he said, grinning and grimacing at the same time, knowing that many of those fans expected for the game also will flock to Dreamland. "I don't know if we're going to get to 92,000 like we did last year, but you never know. The people around here are starting to believe again."
Alabama senior center Antoine Caldwell gathered his teammates around him at the start of practice on Monday, their first day back after spring break, and delivered a stern, but succinct message.
"Let's get motivated, rejuvenated and rededicated," Caldwell barked.
From the sound of it, he didn't need to do much convincing.
In fact, it's almost as if 7-6 (and, yes, that includes the humiliating defeat to Louisiana-Monroe) never even happened in 2007.
Or that 6-7 never happened the year before.
For the record, the Crimson Tide have now lost six or more games in four of the past five seasons. Bryant had stretches that he didn't lose six games over five seasons.
Oops, there we go with the past again. But let's face it: The guy with the houndstooth hat did cast a pretty mean shadow, one that remains unparalleled in the realm of college football.
But maybe, finally, the Crimson Tide have somebody fully equipped to stand in that shadow and the gaudy expectations that come with it.
Nick Saban's stamp on the Alabama program figures to be considerably more noticeable during his second year on the job. His eight-year, $32 million contract was what everybody wanted to talk about last year. But even for that kind of money, Saban had no illusions of coming in and winning big right away.
"My expectation and what I thought would be the case here was that it would be a difficult process, in terms of building the things we wanted to build, from a football standpoint, from an attitude standpoint, from a character standpoint, from a competitive-spirit standpoint," Saban said. "You name it, and it was going to take time to develop what we wanted to develop."
Sure enough, after starting out 6-2 and seemingly having LSU on the ropes in the fourth quarter, Alabama crumbled down the stretch in 2007. The Tide couldn't finish against LSU in a gut-wrenching 41-34 loss at home and couldn't finish the season, losing four straight before rebounding against Colorado in the Independence Bowl.
It's been a theme all offseason and one that has carried over into the spring.
"We took the way last season ended personally, and you saw that every day in our fourth-quarter-conditioning program," said senior quarterback John Parker Wilson. He completed just 48.1 percent of his passes with six interceptions and four touchdowns in those four losses, but came back to throw for 256 yards and three touchdowns in the bowl game.
"We've got scores of games and records posted everywhere downstairs, just as a reminder," he said. "It's embarrassing to us, some of the games we lost and the way we played in those games. We don't want to go through that again."
Neither does Saban, who concedes that much of last season was a feeling-out process on both sides.
"The first year, no matter where you go or what you do, they're not even sure what you want," Saban said. "It's not that they don't want to do it. They don't understand how to do it. Everybody has habits that have been developed over time for them. Sometimes when you try to change those, it's a little slower process than it is when you bring guys in and kind of develop those habits right off the bat.
"I don't care if they're academic habits or social habits or football habits. I just think there's a process you have to go through, and it takes time to do it. But I do feel a lot better about the fact that we have more players who know what to expect, know what's expected of them and are trying to do that."
What Saban doesn't feel as well about is Alabama's depth, which was a concern last season and will be again in 2008. In particular, the Crimson Tide are lean on the defensive line and at linebacker, and they need some receivers to emerge quickly.
Freshmen are freshmen, meaning it's never easy to predict who's going to be mature enough to come in and play right away, but don't be surprised to see a large chunk of that highly rated recruiting class on the field this fall.
"I don't think we have enough depth on our team right now to not have some young guys come through for us," Saban said. "I think we might be able to put a starting 11 out there on offense and a starting 11 out there on defense and maybe be competitive. But after that, it gets more difficult. And at some positions, we're a little thin to start with."
Perhaps the thing that bothered Saban most about last year's team was its penchant for playing up or down to its level of competition.
"We played up to the good teams and down to the bad ones," he said. "If you're a good competitor and have pride in your own performance, it really shouldn't matter who you're playing. You play at a certain level all the time because you're trying to be a dominant player, and that's what really good players do and that's what great competitors do. That's something we need to continue to establish here."
Something Caldwell wants to establish is his own legacy. He was one of the five players suspended last year in the textbook scandal and said nothing was more painful than sitting and watching his teammates lose.
Having grown up in Montgomery, Ala., he's also tired of hearing about what Alabama did 20 or 30 years ago.
"Not to knock any tradition or anything, because I'm proud of what we've done, but I don't want to talk about what the '86 and '92 teams did," Caldwell said. "The thing about this team is that we understand that we want to be a part of something now. We want to start something new, not just for ourselves but for Coach [Saban]. He's got a standard and expectations that he wants to uphold, and he's been doing his job.
"He's done what he's supposed to do. He's put in a program that's been successful. We just have to step up and do our part."
There's no time like the present or the future.
Chris Low is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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