College Football's New Look

Fisher is a third-generation Bowden disciple. He played for Bowden's son Terry at Salem (W.Va.) College and at Samford, and worked for him for 11 seasons at Samford and at Auburn. Fisher has been inculcated in the Bowden Way for his entire adult life. But as many of the above disciples proved, that is no guarantee of success.

The head coach has to succeed on his own. Few have filled big shoes as well as Jimbo Fisher.

The Strategy

Editor's note: In order to whittle our list of playoff contenders from eight to four, we identified a challenge facing each team this spring, and how they're working to turn a potential pitfall into an opportunity.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The older players saw the change in attitude earlier this spring during the Fourth Quarter, Alabama's offseason conditioning program.

"You didn't really hear anybody whining about it," Crimson Tide junior safety Landon Collins said. "Like, if you was here last year, 'Man, why we gotta do this? Why we gotta do so many?' Everybody just came in this year and said, 'We only got 16. Let's just get it done. Let's get it out the way.' And that's how it was. That's how we did it, and it was fantastic."

The team that won two straight BCS championships finished last season on a two-game losing streak. The postmortems revealed a team that didn't bother to take care of details.

"The older guys kind of let it slide," junior center Ryan Kelly said. "... [If] anybody really would do something that didn't reflect how we do things, no one would stand up and say that. So it kind of just let everything get pushed underneath the rug."

And Alabama tripped over it on the last play against Auburn, and pretty much every play of the Sugar Bowl.

"We just didn't have the proper respect for what it takes to win," coach Nick Saban said. "And that's what you're trying to get people to do without having something bad happen. Not having to have a thunderbolt-strike everybody and say, 'OK, it's time to wake up and do it right.' Because you can't afford that."

Saban spent the offseason refocusing his team. He also tried to foment connections among his players, who come from 18 states across four time zones. In the offseason, they went to a movie, went bowling, held a pingpong tournament. Saban is searching for that interdependence that connects a locker room.

"Look, it's human nature, you know," Saban said. "And you're trying to overcome human nature. You're trying to get people to be special, beyond normal. Most people respond better when things go bad than when they go good."

At Alabama, 11-2 is a bad thing.

AUBURN, Ala. -- Coach Gus Malzahn has spent the offseason telling anyone who asked that the Tigers will not change a thing from how they prepared a year ago, even if they are in a much different place in 2014.

In 2013, Auburn was coming off a 3-9 finish that left the program in tatters. Malzahn, returning to the Tigers as the head coach, and his staff had to earn the trust of the players, even though most of them knew Malzahn from his time as their offensive coordinator (2009-11).

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