No. 1: Alabama
By Paul Myerberg // Sep 2, 2010
It’s taken 120 days, we’ve all gone up and down each team in the country, through the depth chart, the pros and cons, examined the coaching staff, the schedule, the team’s chances. Despite all that, we’re right back where we left off. Alabama is still No. 1, where it ended last season. The Tide are still led by an outstanding head coach, one whose thorough domination of his team’s next-closest SEC rival nearly sent another premier coach, Urban Meyer, into early retirement. The Tide still have a Heisman winner in the backfield, and if he’s not ready to go for SEC play, have the nation’s best backup at the position. Alabama still has every piece in place to make a repeat run at the national title. Don’t believe me? Just wait: this year’s team looks even better than it was in 2009.
10 (8 offense, 2 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 4
San Jose St.
- Sept. 11
- Sept. 18
- Sept. 25
- Oct. 2
- Oct. 9
at South Carolina
- Oct. 16
- Oct. 23
- Nov. 6
- Nov. 13
- Nov. 20
- Nov. 27
Last year’s prediction
Here’s a scary thought: Alabama is deeper than it was a season ago. All that team did was roll through a perfect regular season and nearly play for the national championship. There is no question that this team is equally capable. If you want the real reason I believe Alabama will again be in the national title hunt, look no further than the defense. Nine starters return off last year’s unit, and I think another year in this system will see even greater improvement in 2009. My final prediction: 11-1, 7-1 in the SEC, and atop the SEC West. I don’t think this team will get by Florida, but I do have the Tide reaching a second consecutive B.C.S. bowl. In case you didn’t know, Alabama’s back.
In a nutshell A statue is in Nick Saban’s future, thanks to Alabama’s rapid return to the pinnacle of college football. Can we even recall the state of this program prior to his arrival? Or the struggles his team fought through in 2007 — a year defined by a loss to Louisiana-Monroe? It’s seems like a distant memory, those struggles, buried beneath the overwhelming success of each of the last two seasons. Now, last year’s team wasn’t the finest Alabama team in history, nor was it the finest championship team of the B.C.S. era. Not in my mind, anyway. The Tide were nearly upended against Tennessee, needing spectacular play from their special teams to pull out a narrow win; L.S.U. gave Alabama a scare the following week; and Auburn led with less than two minutes to go in the fourth quarter before suffering a painful five-point setback. So why was Alabama so dominant, so intimidating? Because when push came to shove — when the best took their best shot — the Tide played bully. Florida never had a chance — that’s being kind. Texas might have been able to play the Tide tighter, especially if Colt McCoy had remained healthy. The Longhorns eventually fell by 16 points; over the last two weeks, against then-No. 1 Florida and then-No. 2 Texas, Alabama won by a combined final score of 69-34.
High point The easy answer is the win against Texas. History will surely remember that game. As for me, I’ll always remember the SEC Championship Game – the week-long buildup, the storyline, the electricity, the Alabama domination. The national title means everything, but it felt anticlimactic. What if I went back even further, and made the high point Terrence Cody’s block of Tennessee’s potential game-winning field goal on Oct. 24?
Low point When you finish undefeated and as the national champion, there is no low point. How about another high point in this space instead? Alabama beat Auburn, 26-21, giving it two straight victories against the Tigers for the first time since 1998-99.
Tidbit Alabama had seven players selected in the 2010 N.F.L. draft, the program’s most in any individual draft since 1987. The Tide had eight players go in that 1987 draft, though only one came in the first round: Cornelius Bennett went second overall, but the remaining seven drafted players fell off the board between rounds 6-12 — Mike Shula went in the 12th round, 313th overall. In comparison, Alabama had two players taken in the first round in this April’s draft, another pair taken in the second round and one player in the third.
Tidbit (turnovers edition) It’s easy to identify Alabama’s strong defense as the impetus behind the program’s recent revival, but there’s one thing this defense does that dictates Alabama’s success: force turnovers. Or not force turnovers, in a few instances. Since Nick Saban arrived in 2007 — a period of 41 games — the Tide have forced 80 turnovers, including 31 in 14 games a season ago. The Tide were plus-19 in this category last fall, throwing only five interceptions with seven lost fumbles. So why is this important? Since Saban’s arrival, Alabama is 30-6 when forcing at least one turnover. Great, right? On the other hand, the Tide are 3-2 when not forcing at least one turnover.
Former players in the N.F.L.
32 DE Mark Anderson (Chicago), CB Javier Arenas (Kansas City), DT Anthony Bryant (Washington), OG Antoine Caldwell (Houston), RB Tim Castille (Kansas City), DE Jeremy Clark (Arizona), DT Terrence Cody (Baltimore), QB Brodie Croyle (Kansas City), RB Kenneth Darby (St. Louis), OG Marlon Davis (New York Jets), DT Brandon Deaderick (New England), DE Wallace Gilberry (Kansas City), DE Bobby Greenwood (Kansas City), S Roman Harper (New Orleans), CB Kareem Jackson (Houston), OG Mike Johnson (Atlanta), LB Jarret Johnson (Baltimore), S Rashad Johnson (Arizona), S Marquis Johnson (St. Louis), CB Anthony Madison (Pittsburgh), OG Evan Mathis (Cincinnati), LB Rolando McClain (Oakland), FB Le’Ron McClain (Baltimore), DE Antwan Odom (Cincinnati), S Charlie Peprah (Green Bay), LB Cory Reamer (New York Jets), OG Justin Smiley (Jacksonville), OT Andre Smith (Cincinnati), CB Deshea Townsend (Indianapolis), QB John Parker Wilson (Atlanta).
Arbitrary top five list
Five teams I’d re-rank higher, if given the chance
1. Michigan State.
4. North Texas.
Nick Saban (Kent State ’73), 33-8 after three seasons in Tuscaloosa, if you count five wins in 2007 since vacated following an N.C.A.A. inquiry. In case you had forgotten, the last two seasons have reminded us that Saban is one of the top five coaches in America. He proved this fact first in 2007, 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 last season, 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 storylines 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
There’s no phrase more over-used than “game manager,” the idea that a quarterback running an offense competent enough to avoid taking potentially disastrous chances is less of a player than, say, the leader of a pass-first offense for a second-tier bowl team. Yeah, Greg McElroy is a game manager. You know who else managed games? Troy Aikman managed games pretty well, I’d say. No quarterback manages a game better than Peyton Manning, who’s pretty good.
Now, McElroy’s not in that class, of course. But he deserves to deemed more than just a caretaker, a liability when not handing the ball off to the best one-two backfield punch in the country. He’s better than that: an all-conference contender as a senior, in my mind, and a far better passer than most give him credit for. Unfortunately for McElroy, he doesn’t land many chances to show it; he attempted 325 passes last fall, while Alabama ran the ball 557 times — if we discount McElroy’s 54 carries. What he did as a first-year starter, when he threw 17 touchdowns against only four interceptions, is an indication of McElroy’s ability. He’s not the engine behind this offense, but if he manages Alabama to another 14-0 finish McElroy will go down as one of the most accomplished quarterbacks in school history.
Then we come to the situation at running back: Mark Ingram is going to miss a few weeks, perhaps two, perhaps the entire month of September. Not a great break for the Tide, though I would not be overly surprised if we see the reigning Heisman Trophy winner suit up for a few carries against Penn State; not a given, of course, but there’s a chance. If he doesn’t, well, Trent Richardson will simply step into his stead, keeping this running game rolling at full tilt. And make no mistake: it’s become almost commonplace to say Richardson is an equally capable back, but the point has been made for a reason — the sophomore can do more than simply keep Ingram’s seat warm, if last season is of any indication. He rushed for 752 yards and 8 scores as a true freshman in 2009, only once exceeding more than 15 carries but rushing for at least 60 yards in half of Alabama’s games. That’s production. We’ll see more in 2010, especially with Richardson full of confidence following his 109-yard performance against Texas in the B.C.S. title game. Alabama will need a third back — and second back, in fact, while Ingram is sidelined — with redshirt freshman Eddie Lacy holding that role heading into the season opener.
Would Julio Jones put forth A.J. Green-like numbers if he played in a different offensive system? To be honest, I’m not quite sure. He’s a physical specimen, big, strong and imposing, but I think Jones trails Green in explosiveness, the ability to make big plays deep on a consistent basis. Jones is a great fit for this offense, on the other hand, thanks to his N.F.L.-ready frame: he made 43 receptions for 596 yards and 4 scores last fall, leading the team in each category. His numbers will improve as Alabama gives McElroy more of a free rein, but Jones is not going to post a 1,000-yard season, in my opinion. He’ll again be joined in the starting lineup by Marquis Maze, who made 32 receptions for 523 yards in 2009.
From top to bottom, I think Alabama’s receiver corps will be far improved. This is partly due to the experienced presence of players like Darius Hanks and Brandon Gibson, both juniors, and senior Earl Alexander. In addition, the Tide will welcome redshirt freshmen like Kenny Bell and Kevin Norwood into the mix, not to mention a few true freshmen who might avoid a redshirt campaign; yes, depth is not an issue. Perhaps tight end is a concern, as redshirt freshman Michael Williams does not present the same receiving ability of his predecessor, Colin Peek.
The defense must be rebuilt — and that’s not a problem. My confidence in Saban’s ability to put forth a dominant attack knows no bounds, to the point where I don’t believe it’s out of the question that this new group, one breaking in nine new starters, can be as good as last year’s version. Not that it will: the Tide will struggle finding a replacement for Terrence Cody at nose tackle, and must identify a handful of new starters in the secondary.
The best news up front: Marcell Dareus will be ready to go for the season opener — and every game the rest of the way — after putting together a very solid fall camp despite the lingering specter of a potential N.C.A.A.-mandated suspension. Now that he’s running with the top team on the depth chart, though not fully cleared to play, let the superlatives roll in. Like Allen Bailey, the superb end at Miami (Fla.), Dareus is a physical specimen: big enough to even play over the center, he’s a freakishly quick, devilishly athletic 3-4 defensive end. What is he capable of in 2010? All-American honors, without question. Dareus is also in the mix for 10 sacks, a high number for a 3-4 end, and should conclude the year well in the mix for some national hardware.
Joining him at end is senior Luther Davis: while not quite the same athlete, he’ll team with Dareus to give Alabama a steady, consistent presence on the opposite end of the line. The big question is at nose tackle, as mentioned. Junior Josh Chapman holds the top spot on the depth chart heading into the season opener, but look for sophomore Kerry Murphy to earn a significant amount of time. Neither looks quite like the dominating presence Cody was last season, but with the two sharing snaps, look for a strong, high-energy pairing.
The story at linebacker is the health of Dont’a Hightower: if he’s back to 100 percent, he’s the best Alabama could ask for when replacing all-American Rolando McClain. Prior to his knee injury last fall, Hightower looked like a potential all-SEC performer: 16 tackles (4 for loss) and a sack through four games. He takes over at middle linebacker; like Dareus, he possesses a unique blend of size and speed. Junior Jerrell Harris holds the edge on the weak side over Nico Johnson, though the latter did make a pair of starts a season ago. Keep an eye on true freshman C.J. Mosley, who earned solid feedback for his play during fall camp.
Senior Chavis Williams, a three-year reserve and special teams contributor, earns the nod on the strong side over juniors Alex Watkins and Chris Jordan. The latter will play behind Hightower in the middle, though I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that he moves outside at various points during the season. Williams and junior Courtney Upshaw (15 tackles, 1 sack) will flank Hightower and Harris at outside linebacker.
There are two sure things in the secondary: Dre Kirkpatrick will start at one cornerback spot, Mark Barron at strong safety. There’s no doubt that Barron, the lone returning starter, is the leader of the defensive backfield. He’s coming off a wonderful 2009 campaign, one where he made 76 tackles (3.5 for loss) to go with a team-leading seven interceptions — leading the SEC in the second category. He’ll need to do more than replicate his all-American numbers in 2010; he’ll have to be the leader, the one constant in a secondary breaking in a trio of new starters.
Kirkpatrick, a sophomore, has been viewed as the future at cornerback since his arrival a year ago. He didn’t do much last season, to be fair, but his potential — that of a top-flight cover guy — has Alabama excited. It was thought that sophomore B. J. Scott, a converted wide receiver, would join Kirkpatrick as Alabama’s two cornerbacks. This was especially believed to be the case after JUCO addition DeQuan Menzie tore his Achilles tendon during the off-season. Menzie has returned, however, well ahead of schedule, and reclaimed the top spot on the depth chart heading into Saturday. Sophomore Robert Lester will start at free safety, but don’t count out true freshman Nick Perry and sophomore Will Lowery, a former walk-on. As of now, the free safety spot looks like the biggest question mark on the Alabama defense.
Position battles to watch
Offensive line This remains a young group, especially following the graduation of two starters. The best player up front is junior center William Vlachos, a mean, physical anchor along the interior of the line. Like the line as a whole, his play was a pleasant surprise in 2009. Vlachos is coming off foot surgery, but if he’s healthy, he’s an all-American candidate. With all due respect to Vlachos, the lineman I’m most centered on is sophomore D.J. Fluker, the starter at right tackle. He’s a physical specimen, albeit with a slightly smaller frame than when he first arrived on campus: likely around 400 pounds last spring, Fluker has worked down into 340-pound range, leaving him far more agile and athletic while retaining his strength. It is this latter factor that makes Fluker a potentially dominating strong side blocker; he’ll team with sophomore guard Barrett Jones to give the Tide a young, extremely talented right side of the line. If Fluker reaches his potential, I think this line will be better than last year’s version. Senior James Carpenter returns at left tackle, with another year of experience paying dividends for the line’s eldest starter. The lone remaining spot is at left guard, where sophomore Chance Warmack stands atop the depth chart. It’s a young guard pairing, to be sure, but don’t underestimate how Vlachos can help Warmack break into a starting role; in addition, Jones can aid Warmack in his development.
Game(s) to watch
The September home date with Penn State is interesting, though only because of each team’s prestige. I don’t Alabama will have much trouble with the Nittany Lions; likewise for much of the Tide’s regular season slate. The exceptions: Florida, L.S.U. and Auburn — and perhaps Florida again, should the Gators take the East division.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell So here we are: 120 teams, 11 conferences, eight realistic championship contenders, one title favorite. Much has changed over the last nine months, with conference expansion and realignment redrawing the boundaries of the college football landscape. One thing obviously hasn’t changed: the best in January, Alabama is again the best team in the country come September. 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. Why is this important? Because the Alabama offense looks ready to roll, if you’ll excuse the pun, thanks to eight returning starters and an even deeper roster than the one that helped the Tide to a perfect mark in 2009. Quarterback play will be better. Offensive line play will be better. Depth at receiver has improved. Yes, potentially missing Ingram for the first month is worrisome, but as we all know, Richardson has been chomping at the bit for such an opportunity. Now, the defense: talented, extremely talented, albeit inexperienced — at least in terms of game experience. However, 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. To be honest, I’m not sure if I need to tout what Alabama brings to the table; the Tide are the national favorite to claim the 2010 national title. 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.
Dream season A national title repeat, with the added bonus of two victories over Florida, not just one.
Nightmare season Regular season losses to Florida and Auburn — yes, Auburn — are joined by a loss in the SEC title game, sending Alabama to a non-B.C.S. bowl.
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 Fans, Crimson Confidential, Bama Mag, Tider Insider and Bama Online. The blogs: Roll Bama Roll and Tide Corner.
What’s to come? A whole lot. I hope to have a post up later today detailing some of things I’m going to have for you throughout the season. I hope you decide to hang around, even if there aren’t mammoth team previews to keep you entertained.
Tidbit (Dareus edition) I feel like this warrants an additional space to clear up my statement above: while I’ve heard positive things about the situation, I shouldn’t have made it seem like a fact that Dareus won’t miss any time. I amended the paragraph above to rephrase, though now it seems as if I’m backtracking. I’m not — Alabama is going forward as if he’ll be ready to go, and should get some news shortly.
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Tags: Alabama, Nick Saban
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