Every year is a new year and every team is different than its predecessors, as are the opponents that they must face and the obstacles that they must overcome. New challengers emerge, new faces appear, and new struggles become apparent. Combined, it all makes it very difficult to know what to expect from the new season, but fortunately I think that at this point we can safely say a few things. With the dawn of a new season a mere twelve days away, here are ten things to expect in 2010:
(1) Expect the offensive line to be pure hell. Three starters return from a high-end unit in 2009, and making matters better both James Carpenter and William Vlachos have recovered from injuries. Chance Warmack seized the starting job at left guard this past spring, and he has the potential to be the best guard we've seen at Alabama in ages. The same goes for D.J. Fluker at right tackle. He played better than most gave him credit for in the A-Day game, and has continued to make progress over the summer, solidifying his hold on the starting job at right tackle. All together, the line features five starters who should be able to plow the road, plus the raw length and athleticism is present at the tackle positions to be productive in pass protection as well, and the quality depth is perhaps the greatest we've seen since the Bryant era. If injuries remain at bay, expect this to be the best Alabama offensive line in many years.
(2) Expect the defensive line to be pure hell. All three starters may be gone from the 2009 team, but Marcell Dareus is arguably the best defensive lineman in college football, Luther Davis is a seasoned veteran, and the Josh Chapman / Kerry Murphy combo will man the nose. But the real strength here is the almost laughable amount of depth, where the Tide is legitimately three-deep (or more) and chock full reserves who would be starting for other schools. Kirby Smart and company can easily rotate more than ten players along the three true line positions without missing a beat, making this unit the deepest of any on the 2010 Crimson Tide. Many a defensive line coach would be willing to coach for nothing if they could coach this group. Expect this defensive line to be a living nightmare for opposing offenses.
(3) Expect an elite pass rush. The defensive line was largely covered above, but the raw athleticism possessed by nearly everyone in the trenches should be mentioned again. With the rise of Kerry Murphy, the Tide looks to get a pass rushing threat even from the nose guard position in the base 3-4. The linebacker corps, however, is what looks to take this pass rush to the next level. Courtney Upshaw looks poised to finally break out, Dont'a Hightower is a pass rushing terror as a linebacker, and as a general rule the rest of the linebacker corps is big, physical, and athletic. Combined with Nick Saban's complex defensive looks and aggressive zone blitz packages, opposing quarterbacks should frequently find themselves on the turf writhing in pain. The 2010 Crimson Tide may not be able to consistently cover offenses on the back end, but if nothing else the pass rush ought to be the standard by which all others are judged.
(4) Expect a platoon in the kicking game. Coach Saban has repeatedly discussed the possibility of using two place-kickers this Fall -- one for long field goals (Cade Foster) and another for short field goals and extra points (Jeremy Shelley) -- and the equal distribution of the kicking opportunities this Fall indicates that the ol' Nicktator isn't just blowing smoke. Shelley looks very sound technically, but the extent of his range is probably about 35 yards. Anything longer than that, expect to see Foster come onto the field. He may be inconsistent, but at least he has the raw leg strength needed to convert long field goal opportunities, something that Shelley will likely never have. No one knows how these two will fare come game time, but nevertheless expect a platoon in the kicking game.
(5) Expect a loss in 2010. I don't know who and I don't know when, but a loss will almost certainly come at some point in 2010. Undefeated seasons in the modern day SEC are almost impossible, and three consecutive undefeated seasons enter the realm of almost unfathomable, especially when the non-conference schedule brings Penn State and the rotational schedule brings Florida. And I know we may be better on paper than any opponent we face, and that we may be favored to win all games, but games aren't played on paper and the strongest challenges in the modern day SEC often come out of nowhere against severely undermanned opponents (see Auburn and Tennessee in 2009), and someone, somewhere will probably get us in 2010. But don't dwell on the inevitable too long, the world will keep on spinning, and in quick fashion Alabama will return to its winning ways.
(6) Expect to fight like hell each and every week. A national championship does nothing if not put a massive red x on the forehead of the defending champion, and to that end expect Alabama to get the best shot of every opponent on the schedule in 2010. Don't kid yourselves, to beat a #1 ranked, undefeated, and defending national champion football team is the kind of once-in-a-lifetime victory that becomes an instant legend, that breathes new life into a football program, that gets opposing coaches contract extensions and new jobs, and that guarantees opposing players a place in their school's lore 'til the end of time. It's a reward of almost unfathomable proportion, and expect opposing coaches and players to prepare and play commensurate to the level of the reward at stake. Alabama probably gets more than its fair share of best shots just because of its status as a traditional powerhouse, but rest assured it will only be that much more difficult in 2010. Expect to have to fight like hell each and every week to get the victory.
(7) Expect to see many 2010 recruiting class members to play immediately. The overwhelming majority of the 2009 recruiting class found redshirts awaiting them in Tuscaloosa, but that trend will not continue into 2010. Both Cade Foster and Jay Williams will play, as will DeMarcus Milliner, John Fulton, Nick Perry, and Jarrick Williams (i.e. every DB signee), plus JUCO transfers Dequan Menzie and Brandon Lewis. Jalston Fowler should play as well, and signees like DeAndrew White, Brian Vogler, Arie Kouandjio, Petey Smith, and C.J. Mosley have all done enough in Fall camp to have legitimate chances at playing time in 2010. Some true freshmen will redshirt, but expect to see more than ten newcomers on the field as true freshmen.
(8) Expect to see lots of news faces with returning players. I'm not talking about true freshmen here, I'm talking about players from previous recruiting classes who have earned their dues the hard way on the scout team, but who now look to be ready to make names for themselves on those glorious Autumn Saturdays. By this I'm referring to players like Chance Warmack, Chris Jordan, Jerrell Harris, Kevin Norwood, Kenny Bell, Kerry Murphy, Darrington Sentimore, B.J. Scott, and others. Those who follow the Tide closely will be familiar with these names, but many others probably aren't. Expect these players to finally take on meaningful roles for the Tide in 2010.
(9) Expect Damion Square to become a household name. Consider it a sign of the times that a highly-touted recruit out of Houston, Texas gets somewhat lost in the mix with all of the other star names, but Square had a major role lined up on the 2009 defense before a knee injury ended his season late in the second game of the year. Coaches continuously raved about his strength, athleticism, and versatility, which allowed him to be moved between snaps anywhere from Jack linebacker to nose guard. Moving into 2010, he seems fully covered from his knee injury, and he is once again getting meaningful reps at a variety of positions. He may not technically be a starter in 2010, but expect him to play just about as much as anyone on defense, and expect all 'Bama fans to be instantly aware of his name by season's end.
(10) Expect Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson to split carries almost evenly. Last year Ingram received approximately 65% of the combined carries given to himself and Richardson, but that number will creep closer to a 50-50 clip in 2010. Both players have similar talent levels and both players have relatively similar running styles, so there will be no reason to give one player significantly more carries than the other. Expect the coaching staff to equally split carries this year, thereby reducing long-term wear and tear on each player while keeping them fresh for the critical fourth quarter carries.