As the Alabama Crimson Tide seeks to complete its cross-country national championship trek - from Pasadena to New Orleans to Miami in four years - it is easy to forget that not so long ago, the program seemed nowhere near championship caliber.
Alabama tried on four head coaches from 2000 through 2007 (five if you count the brief stopover by Mike Price), an eight-season span that produced a pedestrian 53-46 record. Granted, the latest coach in that stretch, Nick Saban, arrived with a national championship on his resume. But in the four seasons following that 2003 title at LSU - including a two-year stint in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins - Saban had accumulated an equally pedestrian record of 31-26. His 2007 Tide squad suffered an embarrassing home loss to Louisiana-Monroe and finished 7-6.
"It took more faith to come here at that time than it does now," said fifth-year senior center Barrett Jones, one of those recruits who took that leap of faith and signed with the Tide in 2008. "My class, when we came here, we wanted to change the culture of Alabama football."
They certainly accomplished that. Alabama has gone 48-5 over the past four seasons and captured the BCS championship in 2009 and 2011. Now Jones is one of a handful of Crimson Tide players who has the chance to depart college with three national championship rings to wear. That is something that has not been done since the Nebraska Cornhuskers won three titles in four years from 1994-97. The only other team to have pulled it off since World War II was Notre Dame from 1946-49.
Several programs have come close over the years. Alabama captured three titles in five years from 1961-65, and Miami did the same from 1987-91. Florida had a chance in 2009 but lost to Alabama in the Southeastern Conference championship game. Oklahoma, Ohio State, Texas and USC have all had a shot, without success. Winning three national championships in four seasons remains one of the rarest feats in college football, but Alabama has that chance.
"It's pretty special," Jones said. "It's something we try not to take for granted. People ask me all the time, `Do you get tired of playing in the national championship?' No, of course not."
Saban is the primary arc that extends across all three of these potential championship runs. His process has now become accepted practice at Alabama, and it seems likely that the Tide will remain a regular title contender as long as Saban is leading the team. His approach to the game draws admiration from a member of the last program to produce three titles in four seasons.
But while Saban might be the key to it all, there are a half dozen Alabama players who have been taking the field with him since 2009 (not counting the ones who were redshirted that season). On Monday night against Notre Dame, these six will have a chance to hold a special place in Crimson Tide football history:
? Linebacker Nico Johnson played in 12 games as a true freshman in 2009 and made three starts. He finished with 28 tackles (4.5 for a loss) and made the freshman All-SEC team. He had 33 tackles in 2010 and 47 last season. This season he is the Tide's third-leading tackler with 54.
? Jones started all 14 games at right guard as a redshirt freshman in 2009. He remained at right guard in 2010, then moved to left tackle for the 2011 season, where he won the Outland Trophy as the nation's best interior lineman. Jones was shifted to center this season, and he responded with an All-America performance.
? Defensive back Robert Lester played in eight games in 2009 and was a regular on special teams. He became a starting safety in 2010 and finished the season with 52 tackles and an SEC-best eight interceptions. He had 39 tackles and two interceptions in 2011, and 42 tackles and four picks this season.
? Defensive lineman Damian Square played in the first two games of the 2009 season before tearing his ACL. But he bounced back to play in all 13 games as a sophomore in 2010, and then moved into the starting lineup in 2011. He has a total of 92 tackles over the past three seasons, including 18 for a loss and 7« sacks.
? Tight end Michael Williams played in all 14 games as a backup tight end during the 2009 championship season, primarily as a blocker, then moved into the starting lineup in 2010. Though he continues to be utilized mostly for his blocking ability, Williams also has 21 receptions this season for 166 yards and three touchdowns.
? Offensive lineman Chance Warmack played in only five games in 2009 before taking over as the starting left guard in 2010. He has paired with Jones to help create a formidable offensive line that has produced two 1,000-yard rushers this season and allowed an average of only 1.77 quarterback sacks per game.
"(Those players) made commitments to the university at a time when we weren't successful," Saban said. "That probably was the key to us getting things turned around here."