"We’re athletic at every aspect of the offense — the wide receivers, the running back, the quarterback, the offensive line, everyone, the kicking game," wide receiver Christion Jones said. "Everyone’s explosive, so everybody is going to play a collective part in our offense this year." Quarterback AJ McCarron had no trouble spreading the wealth in 2011, and he appears poised to do the same this season. His top four leaders in receptions are gone, but four of his returning receivers — Kevin Norwood, DeAndrew White, Kenny Bell and Jones — caught several passes and each had at least one play go for longer than 30 yards in 2011. "There are guys here to play college football," McCarron said. "They’re here because they’re able to make plays. If the read goes to them, we have to make the play. It doesn’t matter if my favorite receiver or whoever it is is on that side, if it comes to them, we have to make plays and move the chains."
Don’t buy this talk about inexperience at Alabama. As it aims for winning it all again, the talented Crimson Tide is experienced where it matters: Trying to repeat as the national champ. That experience didn’t go well in 2010, because no Alabama player had experienced it before, but lessons were learned during a three-loss season. There are 20 holdovers from the 2009 roster and 18 more from 2010 who now buy coach Nick Saban’s familiar speech – play to a high standard; don’t focus on results – and sell to younger teammates. But look at the results: Since 2008, only Boise State (50) has won more games than Alabama (48), which has been favored in 27 consecutive games and 47 of its past 49, and four of the Crimson Tide’s past five recruiting classes have been ranked No. 1.
Fowler might be the key to the whole situation. If he can learn H-back to Saban's satisfaction, having him at that position would allow Alabama the possibility of using two running backs at once. Count starting quarterback AJ McCarron as a fan of having Fowler on the field, no matter where. "We're going to need him to play well," McCarron said. "Jalston has to be able to come out of the backfield and catch the football for us. He's going to have to play some different positions he's not used to and to make some blocks. But he's done a good job."
Alabama's offensive line includes an acclaimed scholar, one prodigy, a jovial giant and a couple of lesser-known veterans. Led by Outland Trophy winner/graduate student Barrett Jones, the second-ranked Crimson Tide's front five are unquestionably the most established group on the defending national champions. "I'm a defensive coach and watching that offensive line, that's as good an offensive line as I've seen in college football," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said.
He's without a doubt the most recognizable and most exciting player in the Big Ten, and he's also the most polarizing. His placement in the preseason countdown is sure to spark debate on both sides. Robinson is the ultimate difference-maker, a player who can take over games at times and also make costly mistakes. This much is clear: you can't take your eyes off of No. 16. After a record-setting season in 2010, Robinson transitioned to the new coaching staff and a slightly different offense, and had mostly positive results. He led a dramatic comeback against Notre Dame and put up huge numbers through the first six games. While he still faces the perception that he fades down the stretch, he ended the regular season with big performances in wins against Nebraska and Ohio State. The downside: his completion ratio dropped from 62.5 percent to 55 percent, and he threw four more interceptions (15) than he did in 2010. It could have been worse, too, as Michigan's receivers, particularly Junior Hemingway, bailed out Robinson from several more interceptions.
People love to get hung up on Robinson's passing skills, and how he supposedly cannot under any circumstances play quarterback at the next level. Fair assessment or not (come on, they let Georgia's D.J. Shockley do it!), that simply doesn't matter to anyone right now in the college game, a place where accuracy, timing and line reads can each be lessened significantly by athleticism and pure speed in a time of desperation. Robinson's deficiencies, namely that lovely tendency to hurl free-for-all passes off his back foot into triple coverage, are ever-present but still improving under Borges. And honestly, we should all know the drill by now: Elite runner, moderately bone-headed passer with good intentions, unquestioned heart. It's important to keep in mind that the best version of Denard Robinson is still going to come flying at us in 2012, and that even if he takes only a minimal step as a passer the Wolverines are still in perfectly good shape. The highlight-reel runs and Houdini-like escapes are coming soon, don't you fret one bit. But be sure to enjoy this once-in-a-decade athlete while he's still in Ann Arbor, fellow Michigan fans. Players like this don't come around very often.
"They’ve improved so much they are a preseason top 10 team," DiNardo said in the show’s opening. "When I was here in the spring, they didn’t jump out to me like a top 10 team. They’re certainly recruiting like a top 10 team, they’re certainly coaching like a top 10 team but top 10 teams usually have deep talent and experience in the defensive line. I don’t see that in this team yet. Top 10 teams have great morale. Second-year programs are more difficult with morale than the first year. The first year the coach comes in and he sells a new message and everybody buys in. The second year there’s players that even though they bought into the message they’re not part of the plan. So that’s a morale issue that you have to deal with in year two that you didn’t in year one… How about expectations? There’s tremendous expectations on the Michigan team this year. There was none a year ago. Top 10 teams play under expectations. Top 10 teams play under pressure. I’m not saying they’re not a top 10 team in mid-season or end of the season, I’m saying right now it’s more of a team that can play into the top 10 than a team that starts in the top 10."
Fans making the early-season pilgrimage to Cowboys Stadium, whether they come from Tuscaloosa or Ann Arbor, may be witnessing the end of an era - or the beginning. No one is quite sure what will happen to games pairing big-time college football programs from different conferences in the future. Some think that, as leagues expand and more schools find themselves with nine-game conference schedules (the Southeastern Conference seems to be floating in that direction, too), sheer economics will deter teams from giving up home games. Money was a consideration for Michigan that almost scuttled Saturday's game between the Wolverines and Crimson Tide. "When we give up a home game, that's a significant impact on our budget and our year," Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon told the Detroit Free Press this week. "(But) ESPN wanted it to be us, Alabama wanted it to be us, two historic programs, that's what we do. ... I wasn't going to tell them no if we could make it financially viable."
When I arrived in Baton Rouge, the cabdriver who brought me to my hotel talked almost exclusively about the heavy rain the area had been getting. The driver who brought me to my hotel in Tuscaloosa asked if I thought Alabama would repeat as national champion almost as soon as I climbed into his cab. (ed- don't they take their football seriously down there?)
Damion Square, who recorded 7 tackles for loss in '11, knows that even with departing players, Alabama has the type of program that knows how to move on from year-to-year. "There's a reason we have guys that go in the first round because we recruit nationally, and we have new talent coming in to fill those gaps," Square said. "Every year, everybody's going to have a year where they fill in spots, so we just have to give those (new) guys time to learn what they need to do so that we can compete in this league."
How do you keep plugging away after being the national title game MVP? "I think it should drive you to want more," McCarron said. "I know a lot of people get complacent when they achieve what they've always wanted and what their goal's been their whole life. But if I have one and I have a chance to get three while I'm here, I'm going to try to get three. I'm not just going to stick with that one. That's not the way I was raised. "That's not how I play sports. If I'm going to play it, I might as well be the best at it and push myself to be the best at it. That's the way coach Saban thinks. That man doesn't care how many national championships he wins, he just wants to keep winning. I think that's the mind-set that I've taken from him."