The championship celebration was still in full effect Monday night when Alabama receiver Amari Cooper was asked to reflect on what had to have been a dream season for a freshman.
“This season was good, but I expected it to be even more,” Cooper, a former standout at Miami Northwestern, said after hauling in six passes for 105 yards and two touchdowns in a 42-14 rout of then-top-ranked Notre Dame at Sun Life Stadium.
“There is so much more that I can do. I’m going to keep work. I’m only a freshman. I’m going to try to win three or four [championships].”
The Crimson Tide became only the third team in the modern poll era since 1936 to win three national championships in four years. But if you think Alabama’s run is over or the Tide is satisfied, guess again.
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A three-peat could be in store next year at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
This year’s title team, which coach Nick Saban said Tuesday “certainly exceeded our expectations,” loses only four senior starters on offense and defense. And, it’s likely only three underclassmen — cornerback Dee Milliner, right tackle D.J. Fluker and running back Eddie Lacy — will leave early for the NFL.
Next year’s team could be even better. The nation’s No. 2 scoring defense and No. 1 run defense will bring back four starters in its front seven led by linebacker C.J. Mosley, Monday night’s Defensive MVP, and one of the best safeties in the country in sophomore Ha’Sean “HaHa” Clinton-Dix.
The offensive line loses Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack but is still loaded with talent. T.J. Yeldon is ready to shoulder the running load should Lacy leave, and quarterback AJ McCarron, who was the nation’s most efficient passer this season, will have a complete arsenal at his disposal.
“We certainly have to build the team around him,” Saban said Tuesday morning before his team boarded buses and then took a flight back to Tuscaloosa, where a hero’s welcome was waiting. “I’ve talked a lot about it’s difficult to play quarterback when you don’t have good players around you. I think we should have, God willing and everybody staying healthy, a pretty good receiver corps. We’ll have to do some rebuilding in the offensive line. Regardless of what Eddie decides to do, we’ll probably still have some pretty decent runners. But I think AJ can be a really good player, maybe the best quarterback in the country next year.”
Alabama’s 2013 schedule doesn’t feature many formidable challenges.
After facing a struggling Virginia Tech program in the Aug. 31 opener in Atlanta, Saban will have two weeks to prepare for a rematch with Heisman winner Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M, the only team to beat the Crimson Tide in 2012. Colorado State, Georgia State and Chattanooga are Alabama’s other nonconference games. Saban, 15-4 with two or more weeks to prepare for an opponent since arriving at Alabama, will also have two weeks to prepare for a Nov. 9 matchup with LSU in Tuscaloosa.
Oddsmakers in Las Vegas already have projected Alabama as the favorite to win again. Bovada made Alabama a 5-1 favorite. Its other top 2013 contenders: Oregon (8-1) and Ohio State (17-2).
That’s not taking into account what Saban hauls into Tuscaloosa next month on National Signing Day, either. The Tide, which has owned the nation’s top recruiting class four of the past five seasons, currently owns the country’s third best recruiting class, according to ESPN, with eight of the top 150 players regardless of position.
Asked if he would wear his four national championship rings Tuesday, Saban quipped: “I’ll just put them on the coffee table for the recruits to look at.”
Saban could need a bigger coffee table soon. He’s only 61 and reiterated Tuesday the NFL simply isn’t for him. On Wednesday, he said, he would begin preparing for the 2013 season.
‘Very, very proud’
“I know there’s a lot of questions about, ‘How do you celebrate this?’ ” he said. “And I think, in thinking about it [Monday] night, I really hope that we all appreciate what we accomplished and understand what it took to accomplish it, rather than just revel and marvel in what we really did, because if you appreciate something and you understand what it took, I think that you may be more committed to what you need to do in the future to continue to be successful.
“Even though I really appreciate what this team accomplished, and I’m very, very proud of what they accomplished, we do need to start for the challenges of the new season very quickly with the team that we have coming back.”