This will be the third time in four seasons that Alabama returns fewer than half of its defensive starters. Middle linebacker Trey DePriest is the anchor, having started 24 games in two seasons. Nose guard Brandon Ivory, strong safety Landon Collins and defensive back Jarrick Williams also bring a lot of experience.
But the onus once again will be on young players and their ability to ramp up quickly to SEC speed. Alabama opens against West Virginia and its spread offense, the style that became the bane of Saban's offseason existence. Saban got sucked into the on-again, off-again rules change regarding pace of play, and didn't like it one bit.
On the other hand, SEC West quarterbacks Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M) and Zach Mettenberger (LSU) also left for the NFL. That alone should be cause for optimism that the Alabama defense will improve.
AUBURN, Ala. -- The Auburn defense lost end Dee Ford, a veteran and a star who led the team in tackles for loss (14.5) and sacks (10.5). Ford will suit up for Kansas City, which took him with the 23rd pick of the NFL draft earlier this month.
That's no small loss. But overall, the defensive losses for the Tigers are. Five of the top seven tacklers, and three of the top four tacklers behind the line of scrimmage, are returning for the national runner-up Tigers.
College football lineups change every year by definition. There will always be new blood. But for the Tigers, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson whipped out some old-school lessons to impress upon them the task at hand.
Senior defensive tackle Gabe Wright, second to Ford with 8.5 tackles for loss in 2013, said that Johnson told the defense the story of Sisyphus as a way of describing what they had to do.
"He finally got it up a hill, and it rolled back down," Wright said of Sisyphus, "and he was like, 'What do I do now?' "
That's the position in which the Tigers find themselves. They have to roll the ball back up the hill. Fortunately, they have a wealth of experienced players, including seven defensive starters, five in the front seven.
"We bring back a leadership and experience level that we haven't had since 2010," Wright said, referring to the senior-laden national champions. "Whenever you're able to fill up two full rows of seniors in your team meeting room, good things should happen."
Except for left offensive tackle Greg Robinson, the second player taken in the NFL draft, and running back Tre Mason, the offense returns pretty much intact, as well. Quarterback Nick Marshall, who didn't arrive at Auburn until August yet led the Tigers to the brink of a national title, has the advantage of participating in a spring practice with his coaches and teammates.
It's easy to project Auburn as a one-hit wonder looking for its second smash. But do so at your own peril. In the college game, it's hard to beat experience, and that's something the Tigers have coming out of their ears.
WACO, Texas -- Ask Baylor coach Art Briles regarding the players he's excited about after the Bears' spring practices, and he'll deliver his answer with his distinctive style in his slow, Texas drawl.