TUSCALOOSA — On the surface, Alabama has made this game so simple.
It has been all about hitting first, blocking, tackling and avoiding mistakes better than the other team.
These obvious and easily understood tenets have produced one of the most surprising starts in college football this season. The second-ranked Crimson Tide has gotten there despite a lack of flair, content to run the football and bruise opponents, not trailing for one second during any of its first six contests.
Thus the question, "How is Alabama so good all of a sudden?" is seemingly answered. But with Nick Saban, very little can be explained away so simplistically.
Saban's surging Crimson Tide is a walking juxtaposition. It turns out that a team most reliant on brute force actually credits much of its improvement from last year's 7-6 record to mental improvements.
"We were worried about messing up last year or worried about losing," cornerback Javier Arenas said. "We were trying to avoid that so much to the point where we took our mind off winning and doing what we were supposed to do. ... Everything is not going to happen how you want it to happen when you play, and we've learning to overcome that. That's a huge part of why we're playing like we're playing this year."
After arriving at Alabama from the Miami Dolphins in January 2007, Saban liberally used the term "process," which seemed to be a deterrent for wild expectations, a warning that the Crimson Tide could be a work in progress for a while.
That, in the end, was true. Saban's first Alabama team made some waves, beating Arkansas in a thrilling comeback and hammering Tennessee, but ultimately succumbed to a late-season slide.
Things bottomed out with an embarrassing loss to Louisiana-Monroe, followed by a sixth consecutive defeat to Auburn.
"I don't see that happening this year," tailback Roy Upchurch said, "because everybody is really into the season this year. Everybody wants to be that team."
The current contrast to last year's struggles couldn't be more apparent. The squad that broke for a free weekend Friday did so jovially and confidently, assured of its place in the BCS title hunt and eagerly awaiting the next step to a process that has leapt ahead of schedule.
Amazingly, helped by No. 5 Texas' 45-35 upset of No. 1 Oklahoma Saturday, the Crimson Tide could move to the top of the polls when they are released today. And while many in the Alabama Nation expect the team to be a national championship contender every year — realistically or not — the rapid ascension to No. 1 would be beyond the dreams of most reasonable fans.
While Saban will probably downplay the ranking if it comes, he'll likely talk up the way the Crimson Tide arrived there. And even his players are beginning to speak, in many ways, like Saban.
Such is the influence of a man who can be one part X's and O's football coach and the other Tony Robbins, an inspirational speaker with an edge and his own brand of life's lessons that are suited for a self-help seminar as much as a locker room.
"We have principles and values in the organization," Saban said. "People can believe in those and trust in them and respect them and do them ... and if they do those things, they'll have success, and if they don't do those things, they probably won't have as much success. A lot of players here see guys doing better, making improvements. You see improvements in players, and it's because they made a change themselves in who they are, how they go about what they do."
In year one, Saban was as much a critic of his players' off-field demeanor as their performance on the field. Discipline issues persisted all season, with the athletic department's textbook investigation forcing costly four-game suspensions for five players. That brought last year's total of game suspensions to around 30, according to Saban.
There were also 10 player arrests in a calendar year, ending with June's felony drug counts against former tailback and linebacker Jimmy Johns, who police allege was dealing cocaine outside the UA football building.
"You don't have rebels on the team any more," said Arenas, who was quick to explain his thoughts. "If we did have (those) guys last year, that doesn't mean it was the seniors that's gone and that's why we're doing better. It could have been some of the guys on the team still.
"Take me, for example. I could have been against what coach was doing. I really wasn't. Most of the team really wasn't. It just seemed that way. But this year, we're all gelling. We're all on the same page."
After a messy, underwhelming debut season, Saban applied the full-court press this offseason. A total of 18 scholarship players or signees did not make it to the first game, either because of academics, medical issues or a decision to transfer. In addition to a strenuous conditioning regiment, Saban brought in a list of famous coaches in the spring and motivational speakers in the summer to get through to his players.
If that didn't work, Saban spelled it out: "Here's how your job is defined. It's your choice to do it or not academically, athletically, in all those areas."
Have more players bought in to that?
"I believe so, because I'm one of those guys," said Upchurch, whose July 2007 disorderly-conduct arrest accounted for one of the 10. "I believe that I've bought into the system, and I'm able to contribute just because I've bought into the system."
"It's not really that difficult to understand," Saban said, "but when you try to change somebody's habits, it's a little bit more difficult for them to do. But I think a lot of these guys have made that conscious decision to change, and I think that's been beneficial to us."
Of course, it also didn't hurt that Saban brought in the nation's top-rated signing class, and at least a dozen of them are playing recurring roles in games. These things combined to help the Crimson Tide dominate Clemson in the 2008 opener, a performance that proved a point to the entire nation, if not Alabama itself.
"They worked to go play the game the way they played it," Saban said. "The game wasn't the means to the end. Everything that they did before they got ready to play the game was, and that's why they played the way they played. I don't think they surprised themselves."
Saban often tells his players not to fall in love with themselves, and he's not doing it either. A 6-0 record may match last year's regular-season win total, but that's all it does.
The next step is to maintain through the remainder of the season. Saban noted that two words are posted as gentle reminders all over the football complex — "consistency" and "finish." Both will come into play in the coming weeks.
"The challenge is the second half of the season," Saban said. "Can we finish? Can we finish games? Can we play consistently? You can't prove it until we play the second half of the season.
"Regardless of what the results are, the season starts now."