STARKVILLE, MS - NOVEMBER 12: Running back Eddie Lacy #42 of the Alabama Crimson Tide hurdles defensive back Wade Bonner #7 of the Mississippi State Bulldogs during a big run in the fourth quarter on November 12, 2011 at Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville, Mississippi. (Photo by Butch Dill/Getty Images)
Since history is the best predictor of success, I have gone to the stat book to look at Mark Ingram’s, Trent Richardson’s, and Eddie Lacy’s year as the second-option running back before their first year as the featured back. There are some variables like Mark Ingram was a freshman his year as the back-up while Trent Richardson was a sophomore and Eddie Lacy was a redshirt-sophomore. Still, the stats show that the usage rates between the three backs were similar in their back-up roles, which gives a good indication that Eddie Lacy will have similar usage rates this year for Alabama as both Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson did in their featured roles.
Alabama...What is the second option? Option one for the Crimson Tide offense will most certainly be pounding Eddie Lacy. And behind an excellent offensive line, you can almost certainly pencil the hard-running Lacy in for more than 1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns. But what's next? A.J McCarron will likely be fine at quarterback, but is there the type of playmaker on this team that will make passing that much more attractive? The single most underrated part of Trent Richardson's game in 2011 was his value on every down. His receiving abilities allowed Bama to line him up at a couple of different positions last year, much like Brad Smelley (whom will also be missed). True freshman T.J. Yeldon, a former four-star all-purpose back, seems to be the leader in the clubhouse for the understudy role. There's no question that there's talent ready to step on to the field in Tuscaloosa, the question right now is proving it.
It's Fulton vs. Belue and Dixon. Alabama coach Nick Saban has had good success with junior college transfers (Terrence Cody, James Carpenter, Menzie, Jesse Williams). Belue and Dixon are certain to contribute this fall. Dixon was the nation's top-ranked junior college defensive back prospect last season, but Belue seemed to come out of spring training a little ahead in the competition. He signed with Alabama two years ago, but when he didn't qualify academically, he played two seasons at Northeast Mississippi Community College.
While breakneck offenses and ultraprecise quarterbacks increasingly rule the roost in college football, in 2011 many of the most crucial games were decided by kickers. Most notably, Alabama and LSU met twice and did not produce a touchdown until the last five minutes of the BCS national championship game. The Tigers held off the Tide 9-6 on Nov. 5 in part because Alabama kickers Jeremy Shelley and Cade Foster combined to miss four attempts, including one in overtime. Afforded a second chance on Jan. 9 -- thanks in part to those Oklahoma State, Oregon and Boise misses -- Shelley made five field goals (but missed his sole extra point try) in the Tide's 21-0 championship blowout. "College football is so competitive now, the kicks mean a lot more," said Jamie Kohl, a former Iowa State kicker (1995 through '98) who now runs national camps for aspiring college and professional kickers. "The games are tight because of scholarship limits and other factors, and a lot of times it comes down to precious kicks."
Seven starters are gone from an Alabama defense the led the SEC in total defense giving up 183 yards per game. They also led the league in scoring defense allowing eight points per game. Even with some holes to fill senior defensive lineman Damion Square expects the Crimson Tide to have a solid defense again in 2012. "We had great guys that played in the system but don't take away from the system. We have a great coach in coach Saban and defensive coordinator in Kirby Smart that goes in the film room every day as a job and prepares to compete against our opponent. The system is pretty dynamic. We have guys that he has recruited and evaluated over time to fit in those roles and if those guys come and be masters of their position than we will be a great unit as a whole."
What's new this year is Big 12 Conference defectors Texas A&M and Missouri step into the SEC. They'll both try to show they belong. ''Only way you're going to get respect is winning games, OK?'' Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. ''That's the only way it's going to happen. I got no problem with that. You've got to prove yourself.''
Bolden's presence would provide a hedge against an injury to Mettenberger on a team that is one of the favorites to get to the BCS championship game in Miami. The Tigers have a strong defense, offensive line and running game, and they could likely limp along without stellar quarterback play. Bolden would have the advantage of at least having played in big-time college settings in front of large crowds.
For the fourth time, The Associated Press has tabbed me as one of this state's voting journalists in its annual football poll, more of an entertaining exercise than anything else since the AP poll doesn't (and shouldn't) figure into any version of the BCS formula. Still, in the next week or so, a ballot must be formulated, even though every team still has questions to be answered. I don't even know what the answers will be at Alabama, which I cover regularly, and don't even know what all the questions will be at Oregon or Oklahoma, for instance. So for a few weeks at best, don't expect even a pretense of precision. (The great thing, which people still don't seem to get, is that you can shuffle your ballot like crazy throughout September, as the picture starts to clear.)
Last winter, conference commissioners discussed increasing bowl-eligibility standards, a change that would kill some of the 35 postseason games. The status quo seems to have won. "I see it staying at 6-6 for the foreseeable future," said Wright Waters, the new executive director of the Football Bowl Association. "When commissioners went back to their conferences, they found out there's an awful lot of support for 6-6. That's 35 athletic directors who get an early jump on selling season tickets and 35 coaches who are talking to recruits about winning a bowl game."