Nick Saban has won four national titles and played for a fifth in his decade at Alabama.

AP photo by Rogelio V. Solis

HOOVER, Ala. — Are there cracks in the Alabama armor enough for a little hope to shine through for the rest of the Southeastern Conference this season?

The Crimson Tide has won 17 straight SEC regular-season games and the last three conference championship games. But a spent Bama defense was powerless to stop Deshaun Watson and Clemson as it swept downfield for the winning touchdown on its 99th offensive play in January’s CFP National Championship game. That 35-31 defeat marked the first loss for the Crimson Tide in five such title bouts under Nick Saban.

Alabama lost half its starters off last year’s 14-1 team, prompting Nick Saban to lament that this was the youngest team he’s had since 2012.

So there is hope for all you Tigers and Volunteers and Aggies out there. Except …

Um, in 2012, didn’t that “young” Alabama team win yet another national championship, devouring Notre Dame down in Miami? And hasn’t the Crimson Tide stacked up No. 1 recruiting classes like gold bars at Fort Knox dating back to the dawn of the millennium?

It wasn’t Bear Bryant-class poormouthing on Saban’s part. Not hardly. And you get a sense that in a way he’s girding himself for the challenge of getting Bama back to the top again in 2017, even if the ascent is more like climbing a single flight of stairs instead of K2 in winter.

“We always try to self assess,” Saban said when asked if the approach was different this offseason than after his team wins a title. “But when you lose, the mindset of people is much more willing to change. Especially the way we lost.

“It wasn’t the last play, it’s what led up to the last play.”

You know the two words that should come next of course: the process. And when it comes to the man who virtually invented the process, there’s plenty for him to sink his teeth into.

First of all there’s that replacing half the starters thing. Player turnover is something even mighty Alabama can’t avoid, though having its starting quarterback (sophomore Jalen Hurts) return for the first time since 2013 is a good place to start.

Remember how everyone’s one knock on Hurts last year was his passing ability? Saban said he’s been working hard on that through the summer and has really improved. You know Nick doesn’t toss around compliments too liberally, so that can’t be good news for the rest of the league.

Hurts will of course be running an offense directed by not one new coordinator, but two. Saban all but banished Lane Kiffin, not to LSU to become Ed Orgeron’s offensive coordinator but the new head coach at Florida Atlantic. Steve Sarkisian replaced Kiffin for the CFP championship game, but after he left to become OC for the Atlanta Falcons he was succeeded by Brian Daboll and Mike Locksley.

Daboll, the former New England Patriots tight end coach under Saban’s friend and former boss Bill Belichick, is the quarterbacks coach so he’ll be the play caller. And Saban made the point of saying there would be more of a return to pro-style passing tendencies under the new regime, another subtle hint that he had grown weary of all things Kiffin.

We’ll find out a lot about Alabama when it opens against Florida State on Sept. 2 in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. If the rankings fall as expected, with Bama No. 1 and FSU No. 3, it could be the highest-ranked season-opening matchup ever.

It’ll be a huge test for the Crimson Tide and Seminoles. But even if former Saban assistant Jimbo Fisher and FSU get the best of Bama, it would be foolish for anyone around the SEC to get their hopes up too much.

Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.​