By RALPH D. RUSSO
NEW YORK — Alabama will start this season where it ended last season.
The Crimson Tide is on top.
Coach Nick Saban has the Tide rolling the way Bear Bryant did in his day, first in The Associated Press preseason poll for the first time since 1978.
Alabama received 54 of 60 first-place votes from the media panel and 1,491 points to easily outdistance second-ranked Ohio State in the Top 25 released Saturday.
The Buckeyes, who have been ranked no lower than 11th in the last eight preseason polls, received three first-place votes.
Boise State is third, its best preseason ranking, following another undefeated season. Underdogs no more, the Broncos even received one first-place vote.
Florida, Alabama's Southeastern Conference rival, is fourth. Fifth-ranked Texas received a first-place vote.
The rest of the top 10 has TCU sixth, followed by Oklahoma, which received a first-place vote, Nebraska, Iowa and Virginia Tech.
The 10th-ranked Hokies face Boise State at FedEx Field, home of the Washington Redskins, on Labor Day night in the season's first huge game.
As for Alabama, Bryant was coach the last time the Crimson Tide was the AP's preseason No. 1. The Tide started and finished that 1978 season on top of the rankings, the first of two straight national championships for Alabama. The only other time Alabama was preseason No. 1 was 1966, when Bear's boys were coming off back-to-back national championships.
Saban's Tide, led by Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, will try to make Alabama the first program to win back-to-back AP titles three times. Oklahoma and Nebraska also have done it twice.
But please don't call Alabama the defending champion — at least not in front of its coach.
"What was accomplished by last year's team has nothing to do with this year's team. The players have to understand that," said Saban, who in three seasons has fully restored Alabama's status as an elite program. "This team has to develop an image, an identity of its own by its performance. What was accomplished last year is just a standard for somebody else to top.
"Complacency is why the mighty fall."
Saban has been trying to downplay this team's No. 1 worthiness since the morning after the Tide beat Texas 37-21 at the Rose Bowl to win the BCS championship.
Back in January he practically was lamenting the fact that his team likely would be preseason No. 1 in 2010, quick to point out that while the Tide's offense would be returning most of its stars, its dominant defense was facing major turnover.
Gone are All-Americans Terrence Cody, Rolando McClain, Javier Arenas and six other starters from last season.
Stepping in will be a cast of former five-star recruits and talented players who will be asked to expand their roles.
"We have confidence in our defensive players. I think it's more a matter of knowledge and experience and maturity that the defense is going to have to develop," Saban said.
Dont'a Hightower returns from a knee injury to fill McClain's spot at middle linebacker and defensive end Marcell Dareus, the star of the BCS title game, becomes the headliner up front — as long as an NCAA investigation doesn't sideline him.
"You can't really promote guys into leadership roles," Saban said. "I think that it's something that sort of grows, develops and happens because of personality types and respect that other players have."
Saban has little to worry about on the offensive side. Ingram and sidekick Trent Richardson will run behind an experienced line, so the ground game should continue to churn out big yards.
Greg McElroy returns for his second season as starting quarterback and he has plenty of enticing receivers, led by NFL prototype wideout Julio Jones.
"We played early on last season and at times during the season to protect the quarterback a little bit," Saban said. "We thought we had a really good defense and we could run the ball well, we could afford to do that. But I don't think that's going to be the case this year. We have too many good skill players on offense."
There's no doubting Alabama has the credentials to be No. 1, but poll history suggests the odds are against the Tide finishing on top again.
Only 10 of the 60 previous preseason No. 1 teams have won the national championship. And only two (Florida State in '99 and Southern California in '04) have held the top spot for the entire season.
Notable in the top 10, Nebraska has its highest preseason ranking since 2001, when the Cornhuskers started No. 4.
"That really doesn't have much to do with where we are now and what we have to accomplish and something we're not in control of as a football team," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "That is a positive that we're up there a little bit higher than in years past."
The second 10 in the preseason Top 25 starts with Oregon. The defending Pac-10 champion Ducks are No. 11.
No. 12 is Wisconsin and Miami is 13th.
Southern California is No. 14. The last time the Trojans started a season outside the top 10 was 2002, Pete Carroll's second season as coach. Carroll is gone and USC is dealing with NCAA sanctions under new coach Lane Kiffin that prevent the Trojans from playing in the postseason this season.
Pittsburgh, the highest-ranked Big East team, is No. 15.
Georgia Tech, Arkansas, North Carolina, Penn State and Florida State round out the top 20.
No. 21 LSU is followed by Auburn and Georgia, giving the SEC six teams in the preseason rankings, the most of any conference. The Atlantic Coast Conference is second with five ranked teams.
Oregon State is No. 24 and West Virginia is 25.