Getty Images

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- In another life, Buck Smith is an unassuming telephone company employee from Madison, Mississippi. In what amounts to his real life at the 2023 SEC Media Days, Smith was dressed as "Nacho Alabama," a super fan character that wears a luchador outfit and wields, predictably, a yellow hammer.

"I have no doubt we're going to be just fine," Smith/Nacho said Wednesday of his beloved Crimson Tide near a hotel escalator where he could get a good view of Alabama players entering the interview sessions.

Elsewhere, those sentiments may be mixed. Two of the best players in the program's history -- quarterback Bryce Young and linebacker Will Anderson Jr. -- are gone. Of the three quarterbacks on the 2023 roster, no one has emerged to grab the starting job. And for the second consecutive year, Bama enters a season without the title "reigning champion."

Don't call it a comeback in 2023. Not exactly. Alabama did win at least 11 games for the 12th consecutive year, but those victories also fell woefully short of expectations. The season included close, excruciating losses to both Tennessee and eventual SEC West winner LSU. It accentuated the fact that Georgia, if only by a little, has edged the Tide as the nation's most dominant program.

The proof is out there waiting to be, well, proved. Since Nick Saban took over in 2007, Bama has never gone three consecutive years without winning it all. This would be that third year without a national championship.

"Their standard is great," Alabama offensive lineman JC Latham said of Georgia. "I don't think it's above our standard, though."

It's time for Alabama to put up or shut up -- those Dawgs, for starters.

Pundits have tried to write off Saban and Bama through the years. In a way, this is nothing new. There have been other years when the Tide started a season coming off significant personnel losses only to quickly retrench with a new set of stars. Besides, Saban shows no signs of slowing down at age 71. In fact, he recently got a commitment from a top prospect in the Class of 2025. Saban would turn 74 that season.

In one preseason magazine (Phil Steele), Bama is listed as one of the least experienced teams in the country (127th out of 133, last in the SEC). Take the label for what it's worth. In that ranking, which considers returning senior starters, percentage of returning yards and tackles, etc., Colorado is last (makes sense) but Missouri is No. 8 (huh?).

It's a worthy jumping off point for this comeback story. Let's settle on this: The 2023 marks some of the biggest turnover Saban has experienced during his reign. Only nine starters return at Alabama.

"I think experience matters, I really do, but I also think that when you have young players who are hungry and have great energy and enthusiasm, that's helpful to the team chemistry as well," Saban said.

The coach has a bit of experience at replenishing his roster. Since 2017, Alabama has averaged almost 10 draftees per season (nearly four per year in the first round).

There are two new coordinators, one of them (Tommy Rees, offense) only slightly older (31) than some of his players; the other (Kevin Steele, defense) is one of the game's gold standards.

The quarterback situation is more than unique. Since mid-2021, Notre Dame transfer Tyler Buchner has three touchdown passes and two pick sixes with five interceptions overall in that span. Sophomore Jalen Milroe filled in for the Young last season showing athleticism but deficient accuracy. Redshirt freshman Ty Simpson has appeared in four career games mopping up for Young.

Saban has arguably never gone into a season at Alabama with this much uncertainty at the game's most important position. It's perfectly logical to predict the offense may look as it did prior to the 2014 season, which is when Saban went to the spread with Lane Kiffin as his offensive coordinator. That means a game manager at quarterback, a stout defense and an opportunistic special teams unit.

Saban -- that ol' storyteller -- summed up the quarterback battle with a tale about his grandmother taking a cake out of the oven too soon.

"It will turn to mush, and it won't be a really good cake," Saban quoted his grammy as saying. "So, I think we have to sort of let this develop and make sure we let the cake bake until somebody separates themselves."

Saban has shown a willingness to go into a season before picking a starting QB. The likes of Greg McElroy (2011) and Jacob Coker (2015) have been the eventual winners of such elongated battles; in both years, Alabama won national championships.

Add into the equation that Young -- possibly the best player in the program's history -- is gone but not forgotten in this significant statement from Saban: "I think we became a little bit too much Bryce-oriented type of offense -- pass, pass, pass," Saban told CBS Sports. "Didn't dominate the line of scrimmage, couldn't run the ball when we needed to."

Feel free to consider that a veiled criticism of former offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien, now back in that role with the New England Patriots. O'Brien arguably received too much criticism from fans after coaching Young to a Heisman Trophy and SEC championship but no national titles in two seasons.

And if one is going to lean on something too much, Young is quite a talent on whom to overindulge. Still, it stands out Bama was only 3-2 in games decided by six points or less.

"I can't totally put my finger on it," Saban said. "I think there were a lot of really high expectations … probably because of Bryce Young, the great player that he was. I think sometimes when you have a team that has a couple of great players and maybe the other people don't take the responsibility and accountability to do their part as well because they're thinking, 'These guys are going to carry us.'

"I know the players wanted to win because we had a lot of anxiety at critical moments in critical games."

Saban had already hinted the offense is going to be more balanced. It basically must be. The offensive line is one of the strengths of the team. Latham proudly sported a necklace with the initials "TK" -- Trench King, a nickname he earned in high school.

The running back room is stacked. There is talent at wide receiver, but considering the quarterback situation and until further notice, there's nothing on the team the likes of Jameson Williams, the last true Bama wideout who could take the top off a defense. 

"It's not going to be 45 points a game," Smith/Nacho interjected. "It's going to be some of these 21-14 games where the scores don't get run up all the time."

What a pity for a program used to the best of everything. But what a standard Alabama has set for itself.

"They deserve those two rings that they got," Latham once again said of Georgia. "They fought real hard and did what they had to do. Yeah, they won last year, and they won the year before, [but] we're coming for it this year.

"We're coming for it every year."

'Nacho Alabama' in his element. Dennis Dodd, CBS Sports