With eight months of a grueling offseason finally coming to a close, Alabama will return to Bryant-Denny Stadium tomorrow morning for the season opener of the 2011 season against Kent State. Football for breakfast against a middle-of-the road MAC program isn't the most exciting way to kick off a new season, but in any event the 2011 season will begin for Alabama tomorrow morning with just that.
Many have pegged Kent State for a complete pushover, though that is stretching the truth to a degree. Kent State is actually a relatively solid opponent as non-BCS conference schools go. They only narrowly missed out on a bowl game a year ago, and put on respectable showings against both Boston College and Penn State. With an experienced, seasoned quarterback returning under center to complement a solid wide receiver corps, it will come as no real surprise if Kent State ends up in a bowl game later this December. In other words, Kent State is by no means Georgia State. They are a better team than San Jose State was a year ago, and will be a more difficult foe than either North Texas or Georgia Southern, the remaining two cupcakes on the Crimson Tide's 2011 non-conference schedule.
Having said that, of course, Kent State has not faced anything like they will face tomorrow morning against Alabama, and if the Golden Flashes were seriously expected to provide a meaningful threat they would not have been scheduled in the first place. Nick Saban has dismissed the notion of his alma mater being a warm-up game, but for all intents and purposes that is just what it is, as both quarterbacks will get a chance to compete against live competition and several undecided units will be tested in what looks to be an otherwise easy win.
As always in games of this nature, the real concern is the prospect of injuries. In the season opener a year against San Jose State, Courtney Upshaw suffered a high ankle sprain in the first half that ended up plaguing him throughout the entire regular season. In doing so, Upshaw lost out on what looked to be a monster season in the making, and the Crimson Tide defense suffered greatly from his relative ineffectiveness in key losses down the stretch. A repeat of Siran Stacy against Southern Miss in 1990 it was not, but even minor missteps can have drastic consequences, as Upshaw's injury a year ago proved. The season cannot be deemed a success no matter what happens tomorrow morning, but events can transpire that make it exceedingly difficult for 'Bama to attain the level of success that all wish to see this season. Alabama has been blessed with good injury luck throughout fall camp, and that needs to continue tomorrow.
Injuries notwithstanding, though, tomorrow looks to be something of an obligatory affair. Kent State will put up a fight, but barring a meltdown of monumental proportion that fight will ultimately be futile. Alabama will win with relative ease, and focus will quickly turn to the performance of individual players and units.
Nick Saban has been able to dissolve controversy over the quarterback battle as well as could reasonably be expected, but with both Phillip Sims and A.J. McCarron going on display tomorrow, this fleeting period of tranquility will quickly end, and admittedly the staff will use the performances of both players in making their final personnel decision. Much of the same goes at defensive end, on the offensive line, in the wide receiver corps, and in the kicking game. Many questions remain about this team on the eve of kickoff, and while the final outcome of tomorrow's game is all but settled, the play tomorrow will go a long way in answering those questions for better or for worse.
All in all, the potential is clearly present for this team to make a serious challenge for a fourteenth national championship. The obligatory star players are there, the raw talent is plentiful, depth is solid, and the level of coaching remains some of the best in the game. Even so, the season is long and grueling and adversity and nailbiters are inevitable. The SEC looks tougher than ever and Alabama must embark on the 2011 season into the face of the toughest division in all of college football. The margin of error is practically zero in terms of the national championship race (and perhaps even zero), and the difference between the top three programs in the SEC West may be just as small. Only eight days remain until the Tide makes the difficult trip to Happy Valley, with a key showdown against Arkansas looming a mere three weeks away, and for Alabama the time to tie up the loose ends is at hand.
Hope for the best.