Looking ahead before the season even starts probably wouldn't get a Coach Saban seal of approval, but in talking with several people about the reasons why the Crimson Tide is almost universally picked by the preseason polls/magazines to play for another National Title this season it occurred to me: just like the 2010 Tide struggled to replace the core components of the 2009 Championship Team, whether we win another SEC and/or National Title this season or not the core components that everyone expects to make the 2011 team so successful will likewise be gone come 2012. This year's team returns a load of talent and experience on defense, has a favorable schedule, and is working with a mostly intact coaching staff that's been together long enough to know the system and what's expected of them. The metaphorical stars are in alignment for a championship run this season, but just as we heard plenty before the start of last season, there hasn't been a repeat BCS Champion for a reason, and to be perfectly frank if you look at the struggles of teams who have won or played for national titles to get back to the game in the following seasons we have to start honestly asking ourselves when those stars will align so perfectly again. So let's take a look at the reasons why this opportunity simply can't be squandered as we get ready for the 2011 season.
The biggest reason for the preseason hype is the Crimson Tide's loaded defense. 10 of 11 starters return in 2011, but just like in 2009 a core group of experienced veterans are going to make up the heart and soul of this defense. Players like Dont'a Hightower, Mark Barron, Courtney Upshaw, and Josh Chapman will all be valuable contributors, and all of them will be lost to graduation after this season. Throw in the very real possiblity that both Dre Kirkpatrick and Robert Lester, if they can improve on their performances last season and develop into the players their potential indicates, will could easily choose early entry into the NFL Draft and suddenly you've got six starters - not to mention key backups like Chris Jordan, Jerrell Harris, and Nick Gentry - gone in 2012, including an almost completely revamped secondary and linebacker rotation. As monstrously evil as this year's defense should be, 2012's is already looking like 2010's, i.e. talented and solid but prone to lapses and an inability to stem negative shifts in momentum.
And what about the offense? If Trent Richardson has the season we expect...well, expect an early entry into the NFL Draft. Our three most experienced wide receivers in a completely unheralded and inconsistent receiving corps are seniors and will be gone. The QB situation will have settled itself by 2012, but what about the offensive line? C William Vlachos is a senior, key backup McCullough is likely gone at the end of the year, and even if Barrett Jones stays for his senior season we're one injury away from an incredibly young, incredibly inexperienced offensive line in 2012, and 2013 will see a completely rebuilt line. The simple truth is the 2011 Crimson Tide looks more like the 2009 Championship Team than any team we'll put on the field over the next few seasons. We've got a "critical mass" of experience and leadership on defense, a workhorse in the backfield with a more than capable backup, and a solid offensive line to protect a new quarterback that shouldn't have to win games on his own.
Though we play Florida on the road this season, we're getting them in the midst of a coaching change. Vanderbilt replaces South Carolina on the eastern division rotation. Arkansas, Tennessee, and LSU are all at home. 2012? Arkansas, Tennessee, and LSU are all on the road, and we'll be opening the season against a Michigan team in year two of the Brady Hoke experience, all with a rebuilt defense and without another legitimate Heisman Trophy contender in the backfield.
How much longer can we reasonably expect such hot coaching commodities as Jim McElwain and Kirby Smart to stick around? Both will be head coaches sooner rather than later and barring a monumental collapse of apocalyptic proportions they still will be once the 2011 season concludes, SEC and/or National Title or not. Yes, yes, we all think Kirby Smart has a "secret under the table coach in waiting" deal, but facing the very real possibility that Georgia might come calling again - this time for a position a little higher than defensive coordinator if you catch my drift - Smart could very easily be climbing the coaching ladder and fielding his own team in 2012. Same for McElwain. He was a candidate for the San Jose State job before last season and if Steve Addazio can land a head coaching gig after the putrid offensive display Florida put on last year another successful season will once again have McElwain's name popping up on head coaching short lists. Further, position coaches will be moving on to better opportunities as well. We lost Curt Cignetti to a head coaching job at
Penn IUP, and Vinnie Sal Suneri's name was tossed around for the Pitt job, too. Another title run, and we can almost certainly kiss the staff as we know it goodbye.
The Rise of the SEC West
Finally, the SEC West is quickly becoming a killing floor of a division, but thanks to some fortunate enemy roster attrition and the aforementioned favorable schedule, now is the time to take advantage of it. Arkansas is breaking in a new QB, Mississippi State will continue to be a solid program under Dan Mullen but they are still a year or two of recruiting classes away from having their own critical mass of players to be a true contender for the division, Auburn is in full on rebuilding mode, and Ole Miss is...well still Ole Miss,. Alabama and LSU stand atop the division as the most talented and experience teams in the division for this year and this year alone because next year, Bobby Petrino will have experience under center at Arkansas, Dan Mullen will have one more year of players in his system, and Auburn will
have bought enough high end talent be coming back with greater depth and a veteran team. Forget competing for a national title in 2012, just winning the division will be a significant achievement.
Putting it all together, we've got a golden opportunity here folks, one that isn't going to present itself again for several years and we simply cannot afford to squander this season.