With Alabama's beatdown on LSU, the 2011 college football season is officially over. However, it is never too early to look ahead to the 2012 season.
Alabama has some key players graduating, and with Trent Richardson, Dre Kirkpatrick and Dont'a Hightower leaving school early for the draft, there are a lot of holes on both sides of the ball.
The Crimson Tide will be looking to defend their title next year, so Nick Saban and the coaching staff will be looking for young players to step and contribute. And the returning juniors and seniors will be expected to lead the team to another great season.
Here are 11 returning players who will be vital to the Crimson Tide's success next year.
As shown in the Iron Bowl and the BCS National Championship game, A.J. McCarron loves to use his tight ends.
Brad Smelley and Chris Underwood graduated, so Michael Williams should be the main tight end going into the season.
Williams did not have too good of a year in 2011, as he is best known for getting the football ripped out of his hands by Eric Reid on the 1-yard line in the November 5th showdown against LSU.
In 2011, Williams had 16 catches, 191 yards and two touchdowns for the year.
However, Williams should have a good 2012 season. McCarron loves to use play action and roll out of the pocket and dump the ball off to the tight end. So expect Williams to catch a lot of short first downs and a few red-zone touchdowns.
Trey Depriest is going play a major role on defense for the Tide.
Alabama is losing Jerrell Harris, Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw at the linebacker position.
Nico Johnson is going to start in one of the middle linebacker spots, and if C.J. Mosely can ever stay healthy, he will start on the outside because of his speed.
Trey Depriest has shown a lot of potential as a freshman.
When Mosely went down in the championship game, Depriest stepped in right away and played great. Depriest is going to be expected to step in Dont'a Hightower's spot right away.
Depriest has all of the physical tools to be great, but he is going to have to learn all of the schemes and blitzes. He may only be a sophomore, but he is going to be a star on this defense.
D.J. Fluker seriously considered entering the draft, and good news for Bama fans, he decided to return for another year.
Fluker is a massive 6'6", 335-pound right tackle.
If it wasn't for Barrett Jones, Fluker would be protecting McCarron's blind side.
Fluker is a great run blocker and an excellent pass blocker. He has quick feet, and he gets physical, pushing opposing defenders around.
With another year of experience, Fluker can become one of the elite tackles in the country.
I believe Fluker has the potential to be a top 20 pick in the 2013 NFL draft. But for now, McCarron is going love having Fluker protecting him.
Listed at 6'4" 320 pounds, it is not hard to firgure out why Jesse Williams is so hard to block.
Most people would think he plays defensive tackle, but he actually plays on the outside at the end position.
Do not be fooled by the Australian's stats.
He only had 21 tackles in 12 games in 2011, but Alabama's defensive line does not go for stats. They play a 3-4 defense, so the line's main job is to clog up the middle and open up lanes for the big, physical linebackers to run through and get into the backfield.
Williams will make a huge impact next year, because he is so physical, offensive lines will be putting double-teams on him almost every play.
That will let the linebackers get into the backfield and make some big plays. Also, with another year of experience, Williams will know how to handle blocks, and he will be putting the quarterback on his back more than a few times.
Duron Carter is the biggest gamble on this list, because he did not play one snap in 2011 because he was ineligible.
Duron, the son of ESPN analyst Cris Carter, played at Ohio State his freshman year before going to a junior college for one year.
He enrolled at Alabama for his junior year, but because of a paper transcript problem he could not play this year.
Alabama is losing Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks, so Carter should be the starting receiver in the opening game against Michigan.
Carter is 6'4" and 205 pounds, and he's getting comparisons to former Bama receiver Julio Jones.
With Alabama not having a real receiving threat last year, Carter is expected to help boost the passing game right away.
Not a lot of people have heard of Duron Carter, but Carter is going to be a breakout star with McCarron throwing passes his way.
Alabama lost their two starting cornerbacks in Dequan Menzie and Dre Kirkpatrick.
Dee Milliner is going to be the No. 1 cornerback next year.
Milliner has played a lot over the past two years, so he is going to be asked to shut down opposing receivers week in and week out.
He has shown he can blitz off the edge and play press coverage.
Milliner led Alabama with three interceptions and returned one for a touchdown.
Milliner should play full time next year and should develop into an elite cornerback.
Alabama is the only team in recent memory to lose the best running back in the nation and have a backup just as good.
When Mark Ingram left, people wondered how Richardson would be able to handle getting all of the carries.
Do you think people regret asking that? Richardson went on to be one of the best in Alabama history.
Now that Richardson has moved on to the draft, Eddie Lacy is the clear favorite to be the primary back.
Lacy may not be as powerful as Richardson, but he is just as quick, and he has a deadly spin move. In 2011, Lacy had 95 rushes, 674 yards and seven touchdowns.
Lacy has proven he can run in the SEC, as he averaged 7.1 yards a rush last year.
He will get the majority of the carries in 2012, so don't be surprised if he is a dark horse for the Heisman.
Alabama's defense is best known for their dominating linebackers.
Nico Johnson fits that bill.
He is the only returning starting linebacker, and he will be the captain.
Johnson can do everything Nick Saban wants his linebackers to do. He can stuff the run, he can run sideline to sideline, and he can cover really well.
With Alabama breaking in a couple of new linebackers, Nico will be extremely important to this defense's success next season.
Nico Johnson is going to impress the draft scouts all season long and have a breakout senior year.
Alabama Nation received a huge gift when Barrett Jones announced he will return for his senior year.
Jones has been the anchor of the offensive line for the last two years, and that is not going to change next year.
Jones has been important to the line because he is so versatile.
Jones can play any position on the line at a very high level. In his sophomore year, he played right guard, and last year he played left tackle.
When Barrett Jones went down against Auburn in 2010, the Alabama offense fell apart.
With Barrett Jones at left tackle and D.J. Fluker at right tackle, A.J. McCarron should feel very comfortable when he drops back to pass in 2012.
Speaking of A.J. McCarron...
A.J. McCarron had a coming-out party against LSU in the National Championship game.
Everyone expected McCarron to hand the ball off to Richardson.
Instead, McCarron kept dropping back and shredding the highly touted LSU secondary.
One thing is certain—McCarron is only going to get better.
McCarron completed 67 percent of his passes, and he threw for 2,634 yards and 16 touchdowns last year.
McCarron is the physically gifted quarterback Saban has had at Alabama, and he is going to let McCarron throw a lot more next year. McCarron does not make a lot of mistakes, throwing only five interceptions last year. He is going to be the captain of the team trying the to defend the 2011 title.
With a better receiving corps, an outstanding offensive line and a new offensive coordinator, A.J. McCarron should break a few of Alabama's passing records next year.
People may not realize it right now, but Robert Lester is going to be one of the most important returning players for the Tide if they want to repeat.
As the 2010 season showed us, when Alabama had a lot of inexperienced players in their secondary, it ended up costing them a few games.
Lester is the most experienced defensive player that is returning.
He is going to have be like Mark Barron and call audibles, putting his teammates in the right spot before the ball is hiked.
In the past two years, Lester has a total of a whopping nine interceptions. He is mainly a ball-hawking safety, and he rarely gives up the big play.
If the Crimson Tide want to repeat, they will need Lester's experience, and Lester is going to want to have a great senior year to impress scouts and finish an impressive career.