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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 1: Alabama

There have been 119 teams over a bit more than 119 days; there have been hundreds of thousands of words, there have been mistakes – this I can tell already, and the year just began; and there have been many, many late nights. But after a summer of work, here we are: Alabama tops the list, above all comers, and I’m not the only person who feels this way. And yeah, I felt this way last year, only to see the Crimson Tide come up short of their preseason goals. Nearly the same team returns, with a few spots to fill, and there’s always Nick Saban, after all. Here comes college football, and here comes Alabama.

Conference
SEC, West

Location
Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Nickname
Crimson Tide

Returning starters
16 (7 offense, 9 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 1

2010 record
(10-3, 5-3)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 11

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    Kent St.
  • Sept. 10
    at Penn St.
  • Sept. 17
    North Texas
  • Sept. 24
    Arkansas
  • Oct. 1
    at Florida
  • Oct. 8
    Vanderbilt
  • Oct. 15
    at Mississippi
  • Oct. 22
    Tennessee
  • Nov. 5
    L.S.U.
  • Nov. 12
    at Miss. St.
  • Nov. 19
    Ga. Southern
  • Nov. 26
    at Auburn

Last year’s prediction

So here we are: 120 teams, 11 conferences, eight realistic championship contenders, one title favorite. This is for a number of reasons, none bigger than the idea that regardless of numbers or experience, Saban is going to put together a dominant defense. This defense is experienced in Saban’s defensive system, his philosophy, and are ready to put into action the lessons they’ve learned since arriving in Tuscaloosa. Here’s what I know: no team will be better prepared. Few teams, if any, have better coaching. No team is as confident. And no team has this head coach, one who demands perfection. I can’t find a problem anywhere.

2010 recap

In a nutshell All went according to plan through the first weekend of October: 5-0, with wins over Penn State, Arkansas and Florida, Alabama was living up to its advance billing as the best team in the country. Then came a slip-up against South Carolina, where the Tide looked as bad as they’ve looked since Saban’s first season; after back-to-back wins, Alabama returned to the loss column with a setback at L.S.U., when the Tigers took another rabbit out of their hat; after after pair of victories, the Tide lost in the most distressing way possible to Auburn to end the regular season. So there were three losses, which was about three more than most expected heading into the year. What went wrong? So little. Alabama was very good offensively, finishing 22nd in total offense but tying for fifth in yards per play, and was as good as expected defensively. Just three losses, two that probably shouldn’t have come to pass. The Tide were still a great team.

High point I thought the fourth quarter comeback against Arkansas was one of the top moments of the first half of last season. The Tide just played their game, maintaining a healthy ground game and waiting for the Razorbacks to make mistakes — and guess what, the Razorbacks did just that. Other marquee wins in the regular season include a 30-10 victory over then-No. 19 Mississippi State and rivalry wins over Florida and Tennessee. The Tide also demolished Michigan State during bowl play; it wasn’t even close.

Low point Auburn. Too painful to discuss in an Alabama preview.

Tidbit Alabama is one of 22 teams replacing a starting quarterback as head into 2011, and one of three teams doing so in the SEC. Six of those 22 teams won at least 10 games last fall: Alabama, Auburn, Nevada, Ohio State, T.C.U. and Virginia Tech. Two of that sextet still haven’t made a clear decision as to the new starter: Alabama and Ohio State.

Tidbit (halftime edition) Forget about closing the door in the fourth quarter: Alabama can typically relax when leading at halftime. Since Saban arrived in 2007, the Tide are 38-3 when holding the advantage after two quarters. The losses: to L.S.U. in 2007, L.S.U. in 2010 and Auburn in 2010.

Former players in the N.F.L.

31 DE Mark Anderson (New England), CB Javier Arenas (Kansas City), DT Anthony Bryant (Washington), OG Antoine Caldwell (Houston), OT James Carpenter (Seattle), DT Terrence Cody (Baltimore), QB Brodie Croyle (Arizona), DT Marcell Dareus (Buffalo), DE Brandon Deaderick (New England), DE Wallace Gilberry (Kansas City), DE Bobby Greenwood (Kansas City), S Roman Harper (New Orleans), RB Mark Ingram (New Orleans), CB Kareem Jackson (Houston), OG Mike Johnson (Atlanta), LB Jarret Johnson (Baltimore), S Rashad Jonson (Arizona), S Marquis Johnson (St. Louis), WR Julio Jones (Atlanta), CB Anthony Madison (Detroit), OG Evan Mathis (Philadelphia), RB Le’Ron McClain (Kansas City), LB Rolando McClain (Oakland), QB Greg McElroy (New York Jets), S Charlie Peprah (Green Bay), CB Ramzee Robinson (Cleveland), LB DeMeco Ryans (Houston), OT Andre Smith (Cincinnati), DE Lorenzo Washington (New York Jets), LB Chevis Williams (Baltimore), QB John Parker Wilson (Atlanta).

Arbitrary top five list

B.C.S. teams I’d rank higher, if given the chance
1. Georgia.
2. Arizona.
3. Baylor.
4. Iowa.
5. Wake Forest.

Coaching

Nick Saban (Kent State ’73), 43-11 after four  seasons in Tuscaloosa, if you count five wins in 2007 since vacated following an N.C.A.A. inquiry. In case you had forgotten, how Alabama fared from 2008-9 reminded us that Saban is one of the top coaches in America. He proved this fact first in 2008, when he led the Tide to a five-win improvement over his 7-6 debut season. Alabama finished the regular season 12-0 and riding a five-week stint atop the national polls. The Tide were unable to carry that momentum over into the SEC title game and the Sugar Bowl, but the program succeeded in sending a clear message to the rest of the conference: we’re back. Then came 2009, when he took Alabama to the next step: the program’s 13th — depending on whom you ask — national championship. His experience on the college level includes one season at Toledo (9-2 in 1990), five years at Michigan State (34-24-1 from 1995-99) and five seasons at L.S.U. (48-16) from 2000-4, winning the 2003 national championship. It was during his time with the Tigers that his star began to rise in the coaching ranks. His trip to Baton Rouge was one of the most interesting stories of 2008, as while his departure from the program was not greeted with disdain, his return to the SEC — the SEC West, specifically — was. His time between L.S.U. and Alabama was spent back in the N.F.L. as the head coach of the Miami Dolphins (2005-6). His two seasons in Miami began well, with Saban leading the Dolphins to a 9-7 mark in 2005. But his team sputtered in 2006 amid injuries and, as the season progressed, growing concern over whether he would return in 2007. His additional experience on the N.F.L. level includes two years as a Houston Oilers assistant (1988-89) and another four as Bill Belichick’s defensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns (1991-94). It’s plainly obvious that Saban is first and foremost a college coach, and one of this generation’s best.

Players to watch

Alabama recently got some good news at receiver, as the university cleared former Ohio State transfer Duron Carter’s academic transcript, clearing him to take part in practice. That was just this week, however, and the extended delay tempers the expectations surrounding his arrival — at first, at least. Carter won’t start against Kent State, of course, and it’ll take him some time to grasp the offense. But all signs point towards the transfer holding a major role on a receiver corps that will miss Julio Jones, one of the program’s all-time greats at the position.

Until Carter gets his feet under him, Alabama will go forward with the experienced pairing of Marquis Maze (38 catches for 557 yards) and Darius Hanks (32 for 456), though the latter will miss the first two games of the year in an effort to regain a season of eligibility; that’s a first for me, as Hanks will sit out a pair to make up for a game played in 2007. That’s your top pair come North Texas, and I imagine Carter will be getting himself into the mix by the end of the month, if not sooner. Redshirt freshman DeAndrew White will get the start alongside Maze in the meantime, but it’ll be a by-committee approach all season. White’s not the only youngster in the mix: keep an eye out for Kenny Bell, Kevin Norwood, Marvin Shinn and Bradley Sylve, among others. Senior Brandon Gibson is the elder statesman of the second grouping.

The requisite Heisman contender is junior back Trent Richardson — one of the rare backups who seemed, at times, to be even better than his starting teammate, who just happened to be a Heisman winner his own right. Richardson has played quite a bit over the last two years behind Mark Ingram, notching at least 112 carries and at least 700 yards in each season, and there’s absolutely no question that he’s going to have a major impact in 2011. Alabama loves to run the ball; Richardson is a horse; Richardson has as much talent as any back in the country; here comes a run for the Heisman. There’s not much more you can say, really. He’s tremendous. Barring injury, Richardson will be one of the most productive backs in the country. His primary backup will be sophomore Eddie Lacy (406 yards on 7.3 yards per carry), who took advantage of some injuries last fall to put together a nice finish — at least 81 yards rushing in three of Alabama’s last four games. But depth is a slight issue, as while the top pair are superb the Tide were planning on having true freshman Dee Hart hold a major role; Hart suffered a knee injury in July and will miss the season.

The offensive line is predictably excellent. Here’s all you have: an all-American left tackle in Barrett Jones — or an all-American left guard, depending on who you ask — and an all-American center in William Vlachos; a punishing run blocker in left guard Chance Warmack; and a potential breakout star in right tackle D.J. Fluker. This quartet is as good as any quartet in the country. The lone loss is James Carpenter, last year’s left tackle, but the Tide replace him with ease with Jones, who might be the best player in the country regardless of position. The fifth starter is right guard Anthony Steen, though that’s far from set in stone. See, Jones could move inside to left guard, with true freshman Cyrus Kouandjio replacing him on the blind side and Warmack shifting over to right guard. It hinges on Kouandjio and his development, as if he proves ready to take over at that all-important spot it could have a domino effect throughout the line. Regardless of whether he starts or plays as a reserve — whether Jones stays there and Steen at guard — this line is going to dominate all season.

All Alabama had to do last fall was break in nine new starters defensively. And all Alabama did was finish in the top five nationally on defense, once again. And all Alabama returns in 2011 is nine full-time starters, not to mention a 10th defender with solid starting experience. And all we can expect from the Alabama defense this fall is complete and utter stinginess — hard-hitting, turnover-forcing, sure-tackling, intimidating defense. This is the best defense in the country, the best defense, perhaps, in recent Alabama history, and a defense that even the hard-to-impress Saban will love. This is the sort of defense national title-winning teams are made of.

The defensive line will miss Marcell Dareus, but there are linemen — highly-rated, talented linemen — coming out of the woodwork throughout this three-man front. There are two returning starters, nose guard Josh Chapman (31 tackles, 3.5 for loss) and end Damion Square (27 tackles, 7 for loss), and both are going to take a step forward this fall. For Chapman, one of last year’s rookie starters, the added year of experience will lead to a sizable improvement. Square, who moved in and out of the starting lineup in 2010, should recover some of his burst stolen by a knee injury in 2009. The new face is JUCO transfer Jesse Williams, an immediate starter with prototypical size for a 3-4 end. There is no question: there’s depth, and plenty of it. Another JUCO addition, Quinton Dial, and Ed Stinson are very strong secondary options at end; Nick Gentry is a bit undersized to stand up on an every-down basis at nose guard, but he’s a nice change-of-pace — more quick — to Chapman’s size. Williams could also take snaps inside on occasion.

Find something wrong at linebacker. Come on, I dare you. Try as you might, you can’t identify anything worthy of nitpicking along the second level of this 3-4 attack — Alabama is loaded at linebacker, where it can tout a true Heisman contender, a second potential all-American and simply outstanding depth, the latter to the point where one or two linebackers capable of starting at every other team in the country will hold backup roles. The star is Dont’a Hightower (69 tackles), who has the speed to play outside — even at 260 pounds — but will find a home in the middle in 2011, which will help the junior put together some terrific numbers. Like Square, Hightower is two years removed from a knee injury; while a menace last fall, I don’t think he was quite at 100 percent. Speaking of being a menace: senior Courtney Upshaw (52 tackles, 14.5 for loss, 7.5 sacks) is a perfect fit for Alabama’s hybrid outside linebacker-end spot, which gives Upshaw plenty of room to operate in space. There are your all-American contenders; Hightower is an absolute lock, barring injury.

Rounding out the starting lineup are Nico Johnson (33 tackles) and Jerrell Harris, who will line up on the weak and strong side, respectively. They’ll be overshadowed by Hightower and Upshaw, by and large, but both can make plays — and both are experienced, with Harris a valuable asset thanks to his ability to take snaps at both outside spots. The big picture: the 3-4 demands excellence at linebacker, and that’s what Alabama’s going to get at the position in 2011. Hightower is sublime. Upshaw is only starting to get the recognition he deserves, but he’s also worthy of major end-of-year recognition. Johnson might be the program’s next great linebacker, and Harris is a game-tested, experienced, flexible senior. It’s a linebacker corps to be proud of.

And as good as it is, the linebacker grouping isn’t Alabama’s strongest asset on defense. That would be the secondary, ladies and gentlemen, which is the nation’s best by a substantial margin. The secondary would rank among the nation’s best just with senior safety Mark Barron, who joins Hightower as a near-lock for all-American accolades. A bit overlooked while surrounded by countless stars in the 2009 title-winning team, Barron took center stage last fall, notching a team-best 75 tackles (3 for loss) to go with a pair of sacks and three interceptions. Steady, consistent, physical, heady, nasty — Barron is everything you want in a free safety. Like a few others in the roster, he’s one of the best in the country at his position.

He’s joined by strong safety Robert Lester (52 tackles, 8 interceptions), a second-team all-SEC pick last fall. Lester and Barron, Barron and Lester, Lester and Barron — I can’t say enough about this safety duo. Just fantastic. Will Lowery (33 tackles) and Jarrick Williams provide depth, though while Lowery will see time in multiple-defensive back sets it’ll be Barron and Lester doing most of the work. And there’s little drop-off at cornerback, it’s safe to say. Junior Dre Kirkpatrick (53 tackles, 2 interceptions) is a superstar in the making; all he needs is added snaps, which he’ll get throughout this season. The only fear about Kirkpatrick is that he ends up being too good, leading him to forego his final season of eligibility, which is a nice problem to have. After battling back from an Achilles tear to take major snaps last fall, former JUCO transfer DeQuan Menzie joins Kirkpatrick in the starting lineup. Pick your poison: you might want to stray away from Kirkpatrick, but Menzie is far from a slouch; he’ll make plays all season long.

Alabama’s special teams remain intact, with the only question mark a rather pedestrian punting game, though former walk-on Cody Mandell will be better as a second-year contributor. Both kickers, Jeremy Shelley and Cade Foster, are back in the fold: Shelley handles short-range duties, hitting on 12 of 16 tries last fall, while Foster does deep duties, making seven of nine altogether, while also taking care of kickoffs. Maze is a steady option in the return game, averaging 12.7 yards per punt return and 23.6 yards on kickoffs; he’ll take over the latter from Richardson, which is a good move.

Position battle(s) to watch

Quarterback Greg McElroy did one thing better than nearly anyone else, and it’s what he didn’t do, actually: Alabama’s departed starter under center tossed only 10 interceptions in 658 career attempts, which was largely what made him a superior choice for an offense that plays thing close to the vest rather than take potentially damaging chances down the field. If his replacement does little else, he’ll remain out of Saban’s doghouse by not turning the ball over, by playing it safe rather than attempting to lead the offense on his back. The Tide will play two quarterbacks for at least the first week: one is sophomore A.J. McCarron, McElroy’s backup last fall; the other is redshirt freshman Phillip Sims. McCarron did a nice job in clean-up work as a freshman, hitting on 30 of 48 attempts for 389 yards and 3 scores, including a perfect 6 of 6 for 51 yards in the Capital One Bowl win over Michigan State. Sims took a redshirt, obviously, finding work as Alabama’s scout team quarterback, but did enough in the spring, summer and early fall to justify his co-starting status heading into Saturday. So that’s what we’ll see against Kent State: two youngsters alternating snaps, with one perhaps playing more than the other but both getting a sizable audition for the full-time starting role. Saban will make a decision before Penn State, so while there’s no question about whether Alabama will take out the Golden Flashes there’s plenty of intrigue involved with how the Tide progress through 60 minutes.

Game(s) to watch

Auburn, and little else matters. Well, there’s the national title on the line, but Alabama really needs to land a measure of revenge over the Tigers after last season’s disappointment. A rematch with Penn State has historical meaning, but while I think the Nittany Lions will be improved I don’t think the Tide will have any major issues landing a win in Happy Valley. Every game has national championship implications, but these stand out more than others: Arkansas, L.S.U. and Mississippi State.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell It’s a guessing game, pure and simple, and I’ll be the first to admit it. All you can do is sit back, digest all your information, weigh the positives and negatives, divvy up the wins and losses, break down the roster, break down the depth chart, compare your findings and make a decision: after doing that for 120 teams, I came to the conclusion that Alabama is the best team in the country. Why? It’s simple, really, but here goes: a superb offensive line, led by Barrett Jones; a terrific one-two punch in the backfield, paced by a Heisman contender; an experienced receiver corps, albeit one that needs a youngster or two — or a recently-admitted transfer — to step up; a strong defensive line; the nation’s best linebacker corps; and the nation’s best secondary. Did I mention Nick Saban? And before I forget: after taking some lumps last fall, Alabama is tremendously motivated to return to the top of college football. All these factors outweigh and misgivings I have about the competition taking place at quarterback, even if the Tide still haven’t named a full-time starter. Saban will make his decision — he’ll make it soon, he’ll make it for keeps, and I am fully confident that he’ll make the right one. That ongoing competition is Alabama’s biggest question mark, but again, it’ll be resolved by the time the Tide take on Penn State next Saturday, in my opinion. It’s taken some work, it’s taken some long hours and some late nights, but I’ve come to the conclusion that Alabama’s just built for a national championship. Regardless of whether I’m right or wrong, we can all agree on the following: it’s good — no, great — to have football back.

Dream season A 14th national title, depending on your source.

Nightmare season Losses to Arkansas and Penn State early, a loss to Auburn to end the year. For the second straight season, Alabama goes 9-3 in the regular season.

In case you were wondering

Where do Alabama fans congregate? Plenty of options, as you’d expect with this program and its fan base. As always, list below those you feel merit mention. The message boards: Tide FansCrimson ConfidentialBama MagTider Insider and Bama Online. The blogs: Roll Bama Roll and Tide Corner.

Word Count

Through 120 teams 384,911.

Up Next

What’s next? College football. In a big way. Enjoy.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Alex Payne says:

    384,911 words. Bravo sir, Bravo. It’s been an excellent way to spend my summer.

  2. Wizardhawk says:

    You did help fill the void left by the off season and a welcome distraction from all of the drama. Good job sir, even if you are crazy to believe BSU could be a top 5 pick. Bama is a safe bet given their fluff on the schedule and just playing the odds.

  3. Burnt Orange says:

    Extremely well done Paul- as relentless as the Wisconsin offensive line. Now get some sleep – we’ve got a lot of football to watch tomorrow.

  4. Dan says:

    Thanks for all the hard work… 400,000 words equates to four full-length novels. Maybe this year’s countdown will be your magnum opus!

    I’ve learned a lot over the last four + months of reading your blog. I’m sure others will echo that sentiment. Keep up the great writing.

  5. cedar rapids says:

    Who is #0?

  6. DaU!!!!!!!!!!! says:

    That’ll do Paul Myerberg, that’ll do.

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