No. 4: Alabama
By Paul Myerberg // Aug 29, 2012
My only surprise came when L.S.U. didn’t walk into the Sugar Dome wearing black – the Tigers were going to a funeral, after all. What transpired over the ensuing 60 minutes was the most physically dominating big-game performance of the B.C.S. era, in my mind. A question: After seeing how the 2009 SEC title game completely and utterly demoralized Urban Meyer and Florida, do Les Miles and L.S.U. have the mental fortitude to make another run at B.C.S. glory? Alabama and L.S.U. are tied together in more ways than one: Alabama’s quest for a repeat goes through the Tigers, just as the Tigers’ hopes roll through Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide. There are traditional, annual rivalries that tie teams together more closely than Alabama and L.S.U. – Alabama and Auburn – but is there another annual tussle in college football with such historic title implications? It’s time to put Alabama and L.S.U. in a very select class: Nebraska and Oklahoma, Michigan and Ohio State, Florida State and Miami, U.S.C. and Notre Dame – and that’s it. For Alabama and L.S.U. alike, this fact won’t change in 2012.
10 (6 offense, 4 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 1
vs. Michigan (in Arlington, Tex.)
- Sept. 8
- Sept. 15
- Sept. 22
- Sept. 29
- Oct. 13
- Oct. 20
- Oct. 27
- Nov. 3
- Nov. 10
- Nov. 17
- Nov. 24
Last year’s prediction
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.
In a nutshell Casual viewers hate a team that simply demoralizes the opposition from the inside out, from center to tackle, nose tackle to end, inside run after inside run after play-action pass. Purists adore Alabama’s simplicity, though that term undervalues all the Saban and the Tide bring to the table on a weekly basis. All that could stop Alabama last fall was an inconsistent kicking game; this was evident in Tuscaloosa, during the first loss to L.S.U., but Alabama made sure that kicking woes wouldn’t derail its quest for another title in January – the Tide could have won with a single field goal, in fact. When the dust cleared, there was only one question: Was this the best team of the B.C.S. era? You can make that case, one loss or no.
High point The win in New Orleans. A close second: Alabama 42, Auburn 14. You know what Alabama had to love about last fall’s Iron Bowl? Not that the Tide avenged the devastating loss in 2010, but in the fact that there was never one single second – not even a millisecond – when the game was in doubt.
Low point The loss in Tuscaloosa. It would have been great to go undefeated, of course. I was amazed at the time by Saban’s adamancy to stick with his kickers. The loss seemed to carry over to the following week’s win over Mississippi State, which was fairly sloppy, but Alabama was back on track in time for Auburn.
Tidbit Alabama’s nine scholarship seniors is tied for the second-lowest total in the country, trailing only Indiana, Colorado and Rice, who have eight seniors on scholarship. The Crimson Tide were tied for first prior to last week, when Saban placed senior long snapper Carson Tinker on scholarship.
Tidbit (first half edition) The Tide have allowed a touchdown or less in the first half in 16 of their last 17 games, a period that dates back to a loss to L.S.U. on Nov. 6, 2010. Six of these 17 opponents have been held scoreless after 30 minutes: Michigan State, North Texas, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and L.S.U., the latter during last winter’s title game. The lone outlier among this 17-game stretch was last October’s win over Florida, when the Gators went into halftime with… 10 points.
Tidbit (almost-magic number edition) Alabama’s almost-magic number: two. As in sacks in a game, a mark the Tide have reached 31 times over the last four seasons. Alabama’s record in such games is 30-1: 7-0 in 2011, 6-1 in 2010, 9-0 in 2009 and 8-0 in 2008. That one loss? Auburn in 2010, and as in last summer’s post, that loss is far too painful to discuss in an Alabama preview.
Former players in the N.F.L.
34 DE Mark Anderson (Buffalo), CB Javier Arenas (Kansas City), S Mark Barron (Tampa Bay), OG Antoine Caldwell (Houston), OT James Carpenter (Seattle), DT Terrence Cody (Baltimore), DT Marcell Dareus (Buffalo), DE Brandon Deaderick (New England), DE Wallace Gilberry (Tampa Bay), WR Darius Hanks (Washington), S Roman Harper (New Orleans), LB Jerrell Harris (Atlanta), LB Dont’a Hightower (New England), RB Mark Ingram (New Orleans), CB Kareem Jackson (Houston), LB Jarret Johnson (San Diego), S Rashad Johnson (Arizona), CB Marquis Johnson (New Orleans), WR Julio Jones (Atlanta), CB Dre Kirkpatrick (Cincinnati), OG Evan Mathis (Philadelphia), WR Marquis Maze (Pittsburgh), RB Le’Ron McClain (Oakland), LB Rolando McClain (Oakland), QB Greg McElroy (New York Jets), CB DeQuan Menzie (Kansas City), RB Trent Richardson (Cleveland), LB DeMeco Ryans (Philadelphia), FB Brad Smelley (Cleveland), OT Andre Smith (Cincinnati), LB Courtney Upshaw (Baltimore), LB Alex Watkins (Tennessee), LB Chavis Williams (Baltimore).
Arbitrary top five list
New York Mets’ first basemen, 1980-1995
1. Keith Hernandez.
2. Eddie Murray.
3. Dave Kingman.
4. Rico Brogna.
5. Dave Magadan.
Nick Saban (Kent State ’73), 55-12 after five 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 gave us our first reminder 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. That was followed by a 10-win finish in 2010, but Alabama, after suffering a regular season loss, netted another national title a season ago. 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); he won the 2003 national championship with the Tigers. It was during his time at L.S.U. 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 the best to ever stalk the sidelines.
Tidbit (coaching edition) Alabama made two staffing moves after last season, with no one move bigger than the change at offensive coordinator. Jim McElwain, who did really overlooked work with Alabama’s offense, left after the title game for a well-deserved head coaching shot at Colorado State. His replacement – as coordinator and quarterbacks coach – is Doug Nussmeier, who held the same positions at Washington over the last three years. Alabama also lost linebackers coach Sal Sunseri, who left to become Derek Dooley’s defensive coordinator at Tennessee; yes, it takes a promotion to entice an assistant to leave Saban’s staff. He’s replaced by a familiar face: Lance Thompson, formerly of Tennessee, coached under Saban from 2007-8. Thompson will coach the outside linebackers while coordinator Kirby Smart takes on the inside linebackers.
Players to watch
At this point a year ago, Alabama went into the season opener with an experienced defense but question marks on offense, especially at quarterback – remember that the Tide had yet to make a decision between A.J. McCarron and Phillip Sims. It’s a different story today: Alabama is retooling on defense, replacing seven starters, and there’s far greater continuity to be found on the offensive side of the ball. This is a good thing, right? Like many, I have nothing but faith in Saban’s ability to insert several new starters into the mix on defense and maintain the program’s recent level of defensive excellence. On offense, the fact that several key figures return from last year’s physical group bodes well for the Tide’s transition to a new coordinator, though not a drastically altered system.
One thing to keep in mind: Nussmeier is a very well-regarded assistant – like McElwain, he’ll get calls after two or three successful seasons – but he never called his own plays at Washington; he did, however, run his own offense at Fresno State in 2008. If not a huge concern by any stretch, Nussmeier will need to regain his savvy as a play-caller once the Tide take the field this weekend. Again, just something to keep in mind – it’s not something that will be an issue, but after experiencing such great leadership from McElwain, this offense will need to gel under a new voice, one that is calling plays for the first time in four years.
The most looming hole on offense can be found in the backfield, where the Tide must replace a Heisman finalist in Trent Richardson. Alabama will now turn to junior Eddie Lacy (674 yards), one of the team’s most valuable skill players over the last two seasons. But after serving as a change-of-pace option last fall, Lacy must adopt a more every-down mentality in 2012: Nussmeier is going to feed Lacy 20-plus times per game, and the junior needs to prove himself up to the challenge. For Lacy, who has perfect size, it’ll entail a mental change; he’s now the horse, the engine for this offense, and the Tide need him to only chew up yards on the outside, as he’s done in the past, and also gain the tough yardage between the tackles against teams like L.S.U., Florida and Michigan.
I would think that in the early going, Lacy’s primary backup will be junior Jalston Fowler (385 yards), who did a nice job – very, very quietly – as Alabama’s third back a year ago. But I’m interested in seeing how quickly Alabama moves true freshman T.J. Yeldon and redshirt freshman Dee Hart into the mix, especially with Hart back on the mend after missing all of last season with a knee injury. With Lacy now taking on a larger role, Hart could give Alabama the quicker back to team with Fowler, the short-yardage option. Losing a back like Richardson is daunting, even at a program like Alabama. But there’s experience and talent here, as you might expect, and I admire how the staff has found backs who can fill certain roles – Lacy the lead guy, Fowler the bigger guy and Hart, perhaps, the change-of-pace option.
This offensive line will make you wish you stayed at home – will make your defense wished it had stayed at home, I mean. There’s simply no better group in the entire country: Alabama, from top to bottom, can tout unparalleled talent, experience and depth. If you’re looking for a reason why Alabama’s offense will continue pummeling away for 60 minutes, breaking the will of the opposition, it’s because for a second straight year, there’s no team in college football who can match this group’s physicality and flexibility inside the box. Here’s the scary thing: with only two seniors on the two-deep – with only two senior offensive linemen, period – this line is only going to get better and better with every passing week. Are you scared?
The line is anchored by senior Barrett Jones, who moves to center after starting at left tackle a year ago. Just put it on the Outland winner’s tab: Jones has now started at three positions, with right guard and center joining the blind side – and will soon earn first-team all-SEC honors at all three spots. The day his career ends, we’ll need to evaluate Jones’ place among the great offensive linemen in college football history; and in my mind, he’s in the pantheon. His former spot at left tackle will go to sophomore Cyrus Kouandjio, who played in eight games last fall before suffering a knee injury against Tennessee. It’s the status quo elsewhere: senior Chance Warmack at left guard, junior Anthony Steen at right guard and junior D.J. Fluker at right tackle. There’s no better line in football.
I think it’s safe to say that McCarron exceeded most of the expectations heaped on his plate once he grabbed the starting job early last season: he avoided turnovers, hit on short passes, took advantage on play-action and, of course, won a national title. He’ll take on a larger role as a second-year starter, and should be more productive thanks to last season’s experience – and his confidence has to be sky-high. McCarron could stand to improve as a downfield passer, giving Alabama a bit more explosive in the deep passing game, and could even be a touch more precise on third down. That’s all, pretty much. McCarron’s a really nice fit for what Alabama wants to do on offense, beginning with his relatively error-free play, and will turn in a stronger season after closing last fall on a tear. He’s overlooked nationally due to this system, but McCarron is not taken for granted in Tuscaloosa, I can assure you.
On paper, L.S.U. has the best defense in the SEC. Whether Alabama can challenge the Tigers for the top spot – or whether the Tide drop behind Georgia and field the league’s third-best unit – hinges on the staff’s ability to slide new starters into key roles along each grouping of this defense. No one level went untouched: Saban and Smart lost their nose guards, three starting linebackers, both starting cornerbacks and one of the great safeties in school history. Elsewhere, these are the sort of losses that decimate a defense’s ability to remain among the nation’s elite. Yeah, elsewhere – but not here. Alabama might not match last season’s jaw-dropping totals, but there’s no reason to think that the Tide won’t again impose their will on the vast majority of teams on their schedule.
If not every team on this schedule, such as the defense did a season ago. Up front, the biggest change finds senior Jesse Williams (24 tackles, 4.0 for loss) moving from end to nose guard, replacing the tandem of Josh Chapman and Nick Gentry. While Alabama will need to land effective play from sophomore Brandon Ivory to keep Williams fresh, the senior is ready for an all-American season – he’s only now beginning to match technique with some hard-to-believe strength and athletic gifts. With Williams holding down the fort in the middle, the Tide can call on a trio of proven options on the outside: junior Ed Stinson (19 tackles, 5.0 for loss) and seniors Damion Square (32 tackles, 7.0 for loss) and Quinton Dial (24 tackles). All three served in huge roles up front last fall, with Square starting every game. I don’t expect any decline in production.
If the losses hurt along the back seven, Alabama’s defensive front is ready to roll. But what about at linebacker? No matter how you cut it – and as much respect I have for Saban and Smart – I just can’t see the Tide can match what last year’s defense landed from Jerrell Harris, Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw; eventually, perhaps, but not from the start with a new cast of characters on the second level. Where the Tide will remain strong is in the middle, where sophomore Trey DePriest, a strong special teams contributor as a rookie, has worked his way into the mix with senior Nico Johnson (47 tackles) and junior C.J. Mosley (37 tackles), the latter back in action after suffering an injury in the B.C.S. title game.
One thing that won’t change is Alabama’s flexibility: several linebackers can play more than one role, as is the case inside – Johnson is going to play both spots in the middle. It’s a similar story outside, where sophomores Adrian Hubbard and Xzavier Dickson could alternate between the strong side and the hybrid edge-rushing position Upshaw held so well over the last two seasons. The issue outside is that neither of the two sophomores saw much time a year ago; that could lead to some hiccups in the early going, if not a move towards one of several reserves, such as junior Justin Atchison, sophomore Anthony Orr and a crop of promising true freshman, two of whom are in the two-deep – Denzel Devall behind Dickson, Reggie Ragland in the middle. Can these linebackers get consistent pressure on the quarterback? We’ll find out on Saturday.
The secondary is equally young and inexperienced, and as at linebacker, the Tide will lean heavily on the production and leadership of two seasoned contributors: senior strong safety Robert Lester (39 tackles, 2 interceptions) and junior cornerback Dee Milliner (27 tackles, 3 interceptions). Lester’s task will be to solidify the back end of this defense without Mark Barron; to do so, Lester will need to help sophomores Vinnie Sunseri (31 tackles) and HaHa Clinton-Dix slide into substantially larger playing time at free safety – though Sunseri was a key member of last season’s secondary rotation. As elsewhere, it’s important to keep this idea in mind: Alabama’s cupboard isn’t bare. Sunseri is a player, Clinton-Dix had a great offseason and junior Nick Perry, who played behind Barron a year ago, will move over to strong safety to support Lester. Add in true freshman Landon Collins and this defense has five safeties at its disposal. Not one is Barron, however.
It’s not a stretch to say that Milliner’s ability to be Alabama’s stopper at cornerback will decide the fate of this entire defense. He’s been a major contributor right from the start, making 11 starts as a freshman and another six last fall, spending the rest of the 2011 season as the Tide’s nickel back. Milliner is ready for the task: more than anything, he’s starving for the shot at being Alabama’s top cover defender after playing behind DeQuan Menzie and Dre Kirkpatrick a year ago. For the opener, Milliner will be joined at cornerback by JUCO transfer Deion Belue, who has made the most of the opportunity on the depth chart. Another alternative behind Belue is true freshman Geno Smith, who will see time early when Alabama adds additional defensive backs.
There might not be less talent on defense, but there’s less proven talent, and there’s a difference, as you know. Eventually, linebackers like Hubbard and Dickson could grow into Upshaw-like edge rushers; DePriest could be a Hightower-like presence in the middle. Sunseri, Dix or Collins could be the next Barron – again, it’s too early to say. What you do know, however, is that such a transformation isn’t happening overnight. While Alabama’s defense isn’t going to drop out of the nation’s elite, I can’t see the Tide matching last season’s historic excellence. But rest assured, no team will have a better blueprint heading into every Saturday, and no team will be better prepared for every possible offensive permutation – and by November, perhaps no team will be playing better defense.
Cade Foster and Jeremy Shelley will again share kicking duties, with Shelley handling shorter kicks and Foster coming on for longer tries. Foster, with the bigger leg, will again handle kickoff duties. With junior Cody Mandell back at punter, the only piece Alabama must replace from last year’s unit is Maze, who handled both punt and kickoff returns. The Tide will hand return work over to Christion Jones, though Hart is also in the mix – and I expect the redshirt freshman to make some sort of impact for this team in 2012. Milliner is also an option on kickoff returns. If the new return men produce, Alabama’s special teams should take a step forward after a disappointing 2011 season.
Position battle(s) to watch
Wide receiver More often than not a year ago, McCarron looked to four targets in the passing game: Richardson, though primarily as a safety valve; tight end and H-back Brad Smelley, who really set the tone in the second meeting with L.S.U.; and receivers Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks, a pair of multiple-year contributors. All four are gone, which is slightly concerning. But the cupboard is far from bare, especially with Lacy having shown an ability to make plays out of the backfield and a tight end like senior Michael Williams (16 catches for 191 yards), ready to recoup some of Smelley’s lost production.
If there is a question in the intermediate game, it’s whether H-backs like senior Kelly Johnson and sophomore Harrison Jones, the latter last season’s understudy, can just be there – it’s hard to explain, but Smelley was so reliable that I wonder if even two replacements can match all the qualities he brought to the table. McCarron does need a security blanket in the flat to go along with his running back.
It’s a younger receiver corps, but there’s experience to be found among the top four options. Two are juniors: Kevin Norwood (11 for 190) and Kenny Bell (17 for 255) will give the Tide terrific production at flanker. As of the season opener, this duo – who I imagine will share time pretty evenly – will be joined in the starting lineup by sophomores DeAndrew White (14 for 151) and Christion Jones. It’s a youthful group, as noted, and it gets younger on the second level, where true freshmen Cyrus Jones and Amari Cooper, along with redshirt freshman Marvin Shinn, are in a position to see some substantial playing time. Is this a concern? No, not really. Norwood, Bell and White were key cogs in last year’s group. Jones and Cooper arrive with sizable expectations. I’m not worried.
Game(s) to watch
In order: L.S.U., Auburn, Michigan. Then comes Arkansas, followed by Tennessee, and then Mississippi State. No other team will even sniff the Tide – and there’s not even a great shot that the Volunteers and Bulldogs get close, though M.S.U. did hang around for three quarters last fall. As was the case a season ago, a loss to L.S.U. will cost Alabama the West division; a loss to Auburn, if the Tide beat Michigan on Saturday, will cost this team a shot at a B.C.S. bowl. The season opener is really a dream situation for Alabama: Saban will have weeks and weeks to prepare for Denard Robinson and Michigan, which doesn’t bode well for the Wolverines, and an impressive win should put the Tide firmly in the driver’s seat for the No. 1 ranking throughout the year – barring a loss, of course.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell I’ve picked Alabama to win the national championship in each of the last two years. The Tide delivered last fall – and delivered with one of the finest seasons in program history, stomping L.S.U. to take home the second title of the Saban era. Why won’t this team net a repeat; why am I straying away from Alabama? All I can say is that I peg the Tide as the second-best team in the SEC with great hesitation: Alabama might have to replace several key figures on defense, but this is Alabama, after all, and the head coach is Nick Saban, after all, and it’s very hard to imagine a scenario where the Tide simply relinquish control of this division and this conference to L.S.U. after dealing the Tigers such a shellacking in January.
Yet it’s a decision based on only two details: one, L.S.U. has the better defense, and two, this year’s date is in Baton Rouge. But doesn’t Alabama have the better offense? Yes, it does, and it’s the offense that must step forward to offset any decline, no matter how slight, from this year’s defense. Look for this offense to do just that: McCarron is going to be substantially improved, the line is the best in the country, there’s outstanding depth in the backfield and terrific talent at receiver – in all, this offense should be even better than it was a year ago despite losing a Heisman finalist at running back.
It’s obvious that Alabama is one of the top five teams in college football. Again, why L.S.U.? Because the Tigers are chillingly good, and the Tigers might also have a quarterback, which is a frightening proposition. In addition, I think that L.S.U. is experienced enough – and Les Miles is wily enough – to avoid falling under the same spell that has cursed Florida since Alabama took the Gators behind the woodshed in the 2009 SEC title game. We’ll know whether that’s the case on Nov. 3. Until that point, I don’t expect Alabama to lose a game; nor do I expect Alabama to lose again after that point. But of the top four teams in the country, Alabama is the one I feel is most likely not to win its own conference. That’s all. But like the rest of the SEC – and the rest of the nation – I’m terrified at the proposition that Alabama won’t miss a beat.
Dream season Perfection. Alabama wallops Michigan in the opener, cruises into Baton Rouge and exits with a 21-point win, smothers Auburn in the finale and shucks off Georgia to win the SEC title. In the B.C.S. title game: Alabama 42, Oregon 10.
Nightmare season Alabama loses to Michigan, L.S.U. and Auburn, going from the national title to 9-3 in the regular season for the second time under Saban’s direction.
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.
Alabama’s all-name nominee S HaHa Clinton-Dix.
Through 121 teams 500,030.
Who is No. 3? Former college head coaches who share the first three letters of the head coach at tomorrow’s program’s first name and the first letter of his last name include the following: a coach who once went 1-7, a coach who won more than two Ohio Valley Conference titles, a current defensive coordinator at a school pegged to join a B.C.S. conference and a coach who once lost to Delta State by 17 points.
Tags: A.J. McCarron, Alabama, Austin Hubbard, Barrett Jones, C.J. Mosley, Chance Warmack, Cyrus Kouandjio, D.J. Fluker, Damion Square, DeAndrew White, Dee Hart, Dee Milliner, Doug Nussmeier, Ed Stinson, Eddie Lacy, Jalston Fowler, Jeremy Shelley, Jesse Williams, Kenny Bell, Kevin Norwood, Kirby Smart, L.S.U., Michael Williams, Nick Saban, Nico Johnson, Robert Lester, SEC, Vinnie Sunseri
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