Read collegefootballnews's assessment of Bama, version 2009:
It's been quickly forgotten after what happened last year, but this was supposed to be the season that Alabama was going to become a national power. That the program was quarter away from playing for the national title in a surprise, breakthrough 2008 campaign, should only set the hype machine on 11. Instead, Bama is being put on the pay-no-mind list.
Everyone is in love with Ole Miss, the hot program on a national scale going into the season. Everyone is assuming last year was an aberration for LSU and things will be back to normal this year. Even Arkansas is being given a little love with the pieces in place for Bobby Petrino to start doing what he'd like on offense. And then there's Alabama, who should be even better and more talented this year, but few are talking about national championship potential, and that's wrong. Bama has the rare chance to be able to use the "no one believes in us" cliché when it actually appliies.
The recency effect appears to have kicked in when it comes to what happened last year. Bama was tight as a drum throughout the season, seemingly answering every challenge with big scoring drive to quell uprisings game after game, while being ruthlessly business-like and unflappable on the way to a No. 1 ranking and the SEC West title. That Tim Tebow took out the heart and soul of the Tide in the fourth quarter of the SEC Championship, and with the subsequent lifeless performance against Utah in the Sugar Bowl, shouldn't diminish what happened for a team that no one had on the national title radar. For 51 quarters, this looked like a team and a program that was announcing it had arrived under head coach Nick Saban. Don't be shocked if this year's team is better.
So why, outside of the Utah embarrassment, is Alabama not being put among the preseason favorites to end up in Pasadena? Maybe it's because it's too easy, and too lazy, to assume the team will slip after losing a few key players.
John Parker Wilson finished his career as the top passing quarterback in school history, but Greg McElroy should be a more than adequate replacement and he should be an even more perfect fit for what the offense wants to do. Andre Smith was the nation's best offensive lineman last year, but JUCO transfer James Carpenter appears to be a solid fill-in at left tackle. Rashad Johnson was the ultimate playmaker and leader for the defensive backfield, but the other three starters are back in the secondary and Robby Green, Johnson's replacement, was one of the stars of the offseason.
Glen Coffee is gone, but the backfield will be better with several good options ready to step up to carry the load. The great tight ends, Nick Walker and Travis McCall, have to be replaced, but Georgia Tech transfer Colin Peek has All-SEC potential. Antoine Caldwell was a sensational center, but William Vlachos is stronger and has looked terrific. Get the point? Bama has filled the holes, while everyone else of note is back.
Not only are superstars like WR Julio Jones, DT Terrence Cody, and LB Rolando McClain returning, but there's an influx of superior talent from the last two tremendous recruiting classes that has upgraded the overall talent level. True freshmen Trent Richardson (running back) and Dre Kirkpatrick (corner) are just two elite players that Saban has brought in to potentially shine right away.
So if last year's team came from out of nowhere to become a heartbeat away from playing for the national championship, don't be shocked if this year's team, with all the improvements, is able to finish the job.
What to watch for on offense: Greg McElroy. The junior might not be flashy and he's not going to do anything that'll earn him all-star honors over Tim Tebow, but he's the type of heady, tough, consistent playmaker who ends up winning championships. LSU was able to win national titles with Matt Mauck and Matt Flynn, and Alabama won a championship with Jay Barker at the helm. McElroy is the same sort of leader who won't screw things up and will make the plays that need to be made.
What to watch for on defense: The run defense. After finishing No. 2 last year against the run with a linebacking corps that was getting its feet wet and with a mediocre pass rush that didn't help the statistics, Bama should be truly special. The front three, anchored by Terrence Cody, is full of huge, tackle-sized linemen at all the spots, while the linebackers are phenomenal. No one's going to be able to power the ball on this group, while the spread attacks will have more problems than they had last year.
The team will be far better if … the last five quarters of last season are forgotten. How about this for a fun stat? Alabama allowed 155 points in the first 51 quarters of last season, and 45 in the final five. Much will be made about the collapse in New Orleans, and there's the added distraction of the NCAA and its bizarre vacated wins ruling. If this year's team can take on the same confidence it had when it so coolly and calmly rolled through the first 12 games of last season, and came through whenever tested, the combination of talent and schedule should take over.
The Schedule: The Tide made a huge statement against Clemson to kick off last season, and they're hoping to do the same this year against defending ACC and Orange Bowl champion Virginia Tech. The rest of the non-conference schedule (FIU, North Texas and Chattanooga) is laughable. Getting a week off before facing LSU at home is nice, but road trips to Ole Miss and Auburn will make it tough to repeat as West champions. On the plus side, Bama can't ask for much more than for two of the SEC road games to come against Kentucky and Mississippi State. There are only four true road games and there's a stretch from October 11th to November 13th without going away from home for anything.
Best Offensive Player: Sophomore WR Julio Jones. There are always exceptions to the commonly held belief that young players aren't ready for the NFL until they've matured. Jones bucks that misguided thought with the size, speed, and hands to make him a No. 1 target in the pros right now. If he was eligible, he would've been a sure-thing pick in the 2009 draft and might have been an Oakland Raider.
Best Defensive Player: Senior NT Terrance Cody. LB Rolando McClain could be in the discussion, and fellow LB Dont'a Hightower might end up being the best defensive player, but Mount Cody is the key to the D. The massive lineman has gotten in better shape to be even quicker and more active, but that's not his role. His job will be to stuff everything on the inside and be the one the rest of the fantastic run defense works around.
Key player to a successful season: Junior OT James Carpenter. Out of all the key players needing to be replaced, Andre Smith might be the toughest. The Utah loss made that more than a little bit clear. Carpenter won't be Smith for the running game, but the 6-5, 305-pound star from the JUCO ranks might turn out to be more productive in pass protection. If he can shine from the start, Drew Davis can stay on the right side and superstar recruit D.J. Fluker can come along slowly.
The season will be a success if ... the Tide wins the SEC title. It's asking too much to have the same regular season two years in a row with all the same injury breaks and after the SEC was down last year. But the schedule isn't bad and the team is loaded with talent and depth. So the team is better, the schedule is better, and the program will be more motivated than ever after how last year ended. Bama can't be shooting any lower than an SEC title as the goal.
Key game: Oct. 10 at Ole Miss. LSU comes to Tuscaloosa and Auburn isn't nearly as talented as Bama. It's too simplistic to assume the entire season might come down to the showdown in Oxford, but it's the toughest road game of the year and it could be the biggest hurdle. If the Tide wins this, barring an upset, it'll be 8-0 going into the LSU game. Win that, too, and it'll be 11-0 before going to Auburn.
My predictions for the season don't match, but I sure am hoping (I'll be deployed this entire season until the beginning of January, so if we make the NC at least I'll get to watch one game at home):
BAMA - 35, VT – 10
BAMA - 38, FIU – 10
BAMA - 63, North Texas – 0
BAMA - 35, Arkansas – 9
BAMA - 24, Kentucky – 9
BAMA - 14, Ole Miss - 24...boo
BAMA - 31, USCE – 3
BAMA - 35, UT – 10
BAMA - 69, OPEN – 0
BAMA - 38, LSU – 10
BAMA - 21, MSU – 10
BAMA - 69, UTC - 0...d-1AA teams don't get a real prediction
BAMA - 28, Awbarn – 3
As a homer I have to believe that Ole Miss loses 2 SEC games and, therefore, we meet UF in ATL, again, so...
BAMA - 17, UF - 24...those SOBs!
After all, 2010 is the year to expect a NC (with Gmac experienced and Julio and TRich bigger and badder).
*disclaimer: These scores are based on whatifsports.com simulations of the 2008 teams since they don't have the 09 teams set yet. I figure they are as good of a predictor as any, though.