Today the AP released its preseason poll for the 2012 football season, and there at #2 sits the Crimson Tide of Alabama. Last month the coaches voted Bama #3, though if figured in the post-Tyrann Mathieu era the Tide may have faired even better.

But stop for a moment and let this sink in. 2012’s season will mark the fifth year in a row that Alabama has been a national title contender.

Not since the 1970’s has the Alabama program been in this good a shape. Bama has enjoyed success since then, but not the kind of “sustained success” that makes teams see you on their schedule and pencil in a loss.

It’s the kind of success that makes the Tim Brandos of the world hate saying your name on the air as you stick it to them year in and year out and make them have to like it.

It’s the kind of success that makes your rivals’ fans sound like blithering idiots when jockeying their average team’s accomplishments against yours.

Sustained success. Not a flash-in-the-pan, great season amid a career of 7-5’s. But sustained…you-hate-playing-us-because-we’re-going-to-beat-you-down…success.

So how did Alabama head coach Nick Saban get Alabama here? Simple. He had a plan.

From the beginning Nick Saban talked about “the process.” 2007 was the teeth cutting season where the team and fans had to buy in to what he was trying to do. A roster full of riff-raff completely used to molly codding through practice (and sometimes even games) had to die off and go away. And ever since that 2008 break out year, for the most part the Tide hasn’t looked back.

You’re not going to win every game. But 49-6 later, I think it’s safe to say Saban’s plan is a proven one. You may disagree, but virtually every AP writer and NCAA coach with a say has a different opinion. Alabama is replacing almost an entire defense, receiving corps and it’s Doak Walker winner at running back, and the worst anyone will place them is #3. It’s worthy of note that Bama received more first place votes in the coaches poll than even LSU, and that was WITH Tyrann Mathieu still on the team.

So what is his plan? First, we know what it’s not.

It’s not towel waiving, getting players on campus without their families in order to do the kind of things your parents warned you about. It’s not loosely streamlining players with unproven transcripts, or as time will tell, possibly much worse.

And it’s not building a program on empty emotion, with cute catch phrases and group sings of “Lean On Me.” Or limo rides. Or pool parties.

Simply put, those kind of plans…if they are even plans at all…are chocked full of a tasty nougat center, and what they get you is yearly marginal success.

Those plans are how a team like Auburn finds itself missing 43% of its 2009 and 2010 recruiting classes. Forty percent of Auburn’s four- or five-star signees listed by from those years are gone. Gone. Maybe a major reason why the Tigers’ offensive backfield presently consists of four players, two of which have never played a down of football. One of the two that has weighs 168 pounds and if given the chance prefers the out-of-bounds line to the goal line.

Their quarterbacks are in good shape, as long as they’re not called on to pass. Clint Mosely isn’t an SEC quarterback, and Kheil Frazier might eclipse the accomplishments of Kody Burns if a few chips fall into place for him this season.

One of their can’t miss linebackers, a player I overheard two barner friends of mine celebrating when he signed, is struggling to even break into the rotation.

And as we’ve covered here, the string of arrests, suspensions and dismissals is alarming at best, telling at worst.

Then there’s the NCAA, currently sniffing around “at least” one situation in Memphis.

Auburn fans simply don’t understand how bad a shape their program is in at present. A freak 2010 blinded them to the reality of the situation. They are facing another abysmal season where at times they will not even look competitive. And this from a regime now in its fourth season.

So how does a team that has recruited so well and even won a national championship…albeit diminished with controversy…find itself in such bad a shape? If there is a plan in place, there’s a good chance nobody knows what it is.

Now, shift your focus across the state.

Nick Saban’s plan has more sustenance. It isn’t sweet and chewy. It’s made out of titanium. Heck, let’s just celebrate the fact that he even has one.

It’s a plan that focuses on developing the player far beyond the football field. The Tide’s academic center is producing results that is turning the heads of parents serious about their son getting an education.

The Tide’s national championship football team had 21 graduates, one shy of the BCS National Championship Game record Bama set in 2009. Football also had the second highest graduation rate among schools in the final 2011 BCS top 10 and has posted the second-highest graduation rate in the SEC each of the past three years.

As a group, Alabama’s more than 525 student-athletes averaged better than a collective 3.0 grade-point average for the 2011-12 academic year, including 48 who maintained a career GPA of 4.0. Overall, five teams posted GPAs above 3.5 for the second year in a row. That same group has produced four national championships on the field since January of this year.

Saban’s focus goes beyond the classroom into the heart of the player, exposing his team to people that can teach them about life. The Tide was one of the first in the college ranks to employ the services of Trevor Moawad, a sports psychologist specializing in mental conditioning. His company, IMG Performance Institute of Bradenton, Fla. works with professional athletes to fine-tune their psychological preparation for high-stress athletic performances.

But there is a string of speakers who Saban brings in to meet with his team. The latest taking place just this week, as Chris Herren, the focus of ESPN’s most powerful 30 For 30 episodes told his story of substance abuse. Friday a member of the Navy Seals addressed the team on how to deal with life when everything isn’t going your way.

Then there is physical conditioning. Scott Cochran’s fourth quarter program has transformed Alabama from being a team that gave up in the fourth quarter under Shula…having never overcome a deficit within that quarter in his tenure…to a team that physically pulverizes you once you’re tired and worn down.

And finally, then there is the professional possibilities. If you have what it takes to enter the NFL draft, there is a darn good chance you’re gonna get paid. It’s kind of hard to argue with the number of players Saban has had taken in the draft since 2008 (24), not to mention the eleven (11) first round draft picks he’s produced in that time. That’s not far from half.

So at Alabama, if you make it into the NFL draft, there’s almost a 50% chance you’re going in the money round.

So, six years into his stint as Alabama’s head coach, it’s no wonder the Crimson Tide again finds itself at the epicenter of college football. And this sustained success is the kind of thing that strikes fear at the heart of Bama haters everywhere. Saban has never stayed anywhere long enough to see his plan work. Not like this. Maybe it’s for that reason he’s said he will end his coaching career in Tuscaloosa.

Simply put, Nick Saban has a plan. A real plan for sustained success. And, unless you’re totally immersed in hate-filled delusion, it’s hard to argue that it is working to perfection.

What we are seeing is a return to the 1960’s and 1970’s for Alabama football. All because of a plan.

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