TUSCALOOSA, AL - NOVEMBER 05: AJ McCarron #10 of the Alabama Crimson Tide calls a play against the LSU Tigers in the game at Bryant-Denny Stadium on November 5, 2011 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
During the past two months, Nick Saban has been publicly adamant that his 2012 Alabama team is not in for a repeat of 2010, when complacency and a sense of entitlement contributed in large part to an underwhelming season. No, Saban has been clear that team commitment and intensity during the off-season has been outstanding, and that if Alabama does fall short of its ultimate goal this season, it won't be due to a lack of focus and effort.
In general, the typically sober and somber Saban has been relatively upbeat this fall, and has generally spoken of his team in praising terms. And to be sure, the front-line talent on both sides of the ball more than warrants a bullish outlook as kick-off nears.
A.J. McCarron leads the team offensively, and after a tremendous performance in the BCS Championship Game he has been praised by Saban for his leadership skills and his commitment to improvement. He posted a strong final line a year ago, and he should perform at a higher level this season with more experience and a better wide receiver corps. At worst he figures to be one of the better quarterbacks in the conference, and admittedly he has the raw physical tools needed to develop into a bona fide star in the coming months.
Trent Richardson cannot be replaced, no, but Eddie Lacy has improved each year he has been on campus and should be a standout in his own right if he can overcome nagging leg injuries. Even without Lacy, however, depth is superb, with true freshman T.J. Yeldon looking to continue the legacy of Mark Ingram and the aforementioned Richardson, and he will be complemented in the backfield by Jalston Fowler, Dee Hart, Kenyan Drake, and Blake Sims. Only a literal plague of injuries could limit the tailback rotation, and given the strength of the offensive line in front of it, even a moderately competent tailback would produce good results.
The offensive line, in fact, could arguably be the best 'Bama has fielded since the apogee of the Bryant dynasty. With returning Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones at center, Chance Warmack at left guard, and D.J. Fluker at right tackle, 'Bama has three starters who could legitimately be All-America selections this December and first round NFL Draft choices next April. Cyrus Kouandjio, a former super-recruit and likely three-year player, will start at left tackle, with Anthony Steen, a fourth year player who started nine games a year ago, rounding out the starting five at right guard. Steen is the weak spot of the line, even though he would likely start for every other team in the conference, and that alone speaks volumes to the potential strength of this unit. Only LSU has an offensive line who can be mentioned in the same conversation.
The wide receiver corps loses its top two receivers from a year ago, but even so returns more experience throughout and the rotation as a whole has better raw size and depth. Kevin Norwood looks poised to finally live up to his potential, and alongside DeAndrew White, Christion Jones, and true freshman standout Amari Cooper, the top of the rotation looks solid. The presence of Kenny Bell, Marvin Shinn, Cyrus Jones, and Danny Woodson provide quality depth, and from top-to-bottom the receiver corps as a whole could be better than any Alabama has fielded in some time.
Defensively, numerous known commodities must be replaced, but the attrition isn't what it was two years ago and the defense will be anchored up front by a stellar defensive line. Jesse Williams moves over to play nose guard, and the rotation at defensive end is an effective embarrassment of riches, featuring Damion Square, Ed Stinson, Quinton Dial, Jeoffrey Pagan, LaMichael Fanning, and D.J. Pettway. Few opposing offensive lines will be able to handle the Tide defense at the point of attack, and its deep rotation will pummel many into submission.
The linebacker corps will have to overcome the loss of Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw, but even so significant depth and experience returns. The interior of the linebacker corps features a strong three-man rotation between Nico Johnson, Trey DePriest, and C.J. Mosley. Adrian Hubbard has been moved to Sam linebacker, and together with Xzavier Dickson at Jack, 'Bama has moved towards a dueling Jacks package that should be particularly effectiveness in rushing the passer. Experience down the rotation is not ideal, but with Tana Patrick, Jonathan Atchison, Denzel Devall, Dillon Lee, Ryan Anderson, and Reggie Ragland, overall ability down the depth chart is by no means a concern.
Moving to the defensive backfield, fifth-year senior Robert Lester returns at safety, and even with the season-ending injury to Jarrick Williams, depth is outstanding at the position, with Vinny Sunseri, Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix, Nick Perry, and true freshman Landon Collins. Cornerback is a bit trickier, but DeMarcus Milliner returns as a third-year starter, JUCO transfer Deion Belue looks to be an instant star, and John Fulton should be adequate as a nickel player.
On the whole, there are no real weaknesses at any position on either side of the ball. Some units are stronger than others, but there are simply no glaring shortcomings that can be readily exploded by opposing teams. A bullish season projection is more than justified based on the foregoing alone.
Depth, however, could become a major problem as the season progresses. Quality depth across the roster is generally strong, but depth specifically at quarterback, offensive tackle, nose guard, and cornerback ranges from limited-at-best to downright non-existent. At quarterback, for example, it seems painfully apparent that Alabama simply does not have a viable passer in the event that A.J. McCarron goes down. With that in mind, can Alabama go to Baton Rouge in early November and win with, say, Phillip Ely under center? The answer is evident on its face.
Likewise, can Brandon Ivory his own at the point of attack should Jesse Williams miss time? What if true freshman Darren Lake draws that duty? Can Arie Kouandjio stay healthy and provide quality depth on the offensive line should something happen to either Cyrus Kouandjio or D.J. Fluker? Can Bradley Sylve or Geno Smith hold up in coverage against dangerous SEC wide receivers? The answer to all of those questions could arguably be no, and the on-field consequences could be unavoidable if so. In short, 'Bama can weather injuries at several position, but at certain spots across the roster an untimely injury could doom a national championship run.
And, of course, surely as the sun rises in the East, the kicking game remains a constant source of hand-wringing. Incoming freshman Adam Griffith has been unable to seize the long-range place-kicking job from Cade Foster, and even with the rule change on kick-offs Foster will have to add length to his kicks to consistently produce touchbacks. Barring major improvement, long-range kicks will continue to be near Hail Mary attempts, and the kick return defense will be routinely tested. Cody Mandell continues to improve, but consistencies issues have been present during fall camp, so his performance may still be spotty at times. Hopefully the kicking game won't be an issue, but Alabama followers learned the hard way last November that bad kicking and close contests are a dangerous mixture.
The schedule, too, is no small obstacle. The road ahead is always treacherous in the SEC, but that seems particularly so for this Alabama team. Drawing Michigan in the season opener and a road game against Arkansas in week three will provide the inexperienced a baptism by fire, and the final eight week stretch-run will be grueling. Back-to-back road games against Missouri and Tennessee will not come easy should issues at cornerback arise, and the same largely goes for Texas A&M as well, which will be especially difficult given that it will come the week after the LSU game. And LSU, of course, figures to be nothing short of a brutal slugfest.
Moreover, deserving as though the Tide proved itself this past January 9th, no one can realistically expect that the pollsters will put a one-loss Alabama team back in the national championship game for a second year in a row. Accordingly, if Alabama legitimately expects to defend its crown, an undefeated season figures to be a pre-requisite, which necessarily involves not only winning showdowns in Dallas, Baton Rouge, and Atlanta but also avoiding upsets along the way.
Provided that A.J. McCarron stays healthy, ten wins is likely the bottom-end projection for this Alabama team, but as seen two years ago, ten wins ago is far from satisfying with Nick Saban at the helm in Tuscaloosa. Unspoken or not, the pertinent question involves whether or not Alabama can earn a spot in Miami in the second week of January, and nothing short of that will be considered a success by many. The coaching staff and the overall talent level is there for Alabama to make a legitimate run, but only time will tell if injury luck and experience at key positions will hold up for the Tide to stamp its ticket.