The Alabama Crimson Tide take to the field in 2012 with a target squarely on their back. Fortunately, their coach has been here before, and even though they lost a number of key players, they're still one of the top five teams in the country.
Nick Saban's teams have a tendency to be that way, because he not only recruits well, but he also teaches well.
The Tide roll into this season with question marks in the backfield for the first time in a few years and will have to lean on their quarterback more than in years past.
And defensively they have to hope that talent wins out over experience.
Fans will get their first look at the reigning National Champions at A-Day this weekend.
Where: Bryant-Denny Stadium, Tuscaloosa, Alabama
When: Saturday, April 14, 3 p.m. EST
Watch: ESPN 3
Position Battle to Watch: Running Back
Trent Richardson is off to the NFL, and Eddie Lacy is expected to take over the starting spot in the backfield. Lacy is out for the duration of the spring with injury, though, and that gives the Tide an optimal chance to see what else is cooking behind their powerful, albeit thin, offensive line.
Lacy ran for 674 yards and seven touchdowns, while averaging 7.1 yards per carry last season.
Fowler has actually made the most of his opportunities this spring, but Hart and Yeldon, two Rivals 5-star recruits, are the most exciting of the bunch.
Excitement and playmaking are things the Crimson Tide offense lacks, and even Lacy doesn't help too much in that category.
We've seen Alabama use a number of players in the backfield throughout the season, so figuring out which players deserve more carries is an important task going into the summer.
Area in Need of Most Improvement: Quarterback
We can talk about all the losses on 'Bama's defense, but one thing we know for sure is that Nick Saban is going to get his players to shut down opposing offenses.
It is the Tide offense that has huge question marks, and this year they cannot rely on just a running game as they have in year's past.
A.J. McCarron was a good part of the reason the Tide lost to LSU the first time around, but he redeemed himself in the BCS Championship Game
This year, McCarron has to take over the offense—he needs to be their go-to guy.
According to ESPN TideNation's Alex Scarborough, Saban has been happy with his quarterback so far this spring:
McCarron has had some good practices and has earned high praise from coach Nick Saban, who lauded his command of the offense ... Judging by his performance in two scrimmages thus far—throwing seven touchdowns to just two interceptions—McCarron appears ready to meet the challenge.
He needs to be. The Tide have a lot of young talent and need someone to rally them offensively. Who better to do so than the only man talking in the huddle?
What to Expect in 2012
It is terribly hard to repeat as National Champions in this day and age. The last team to do so was USC in 2003 and 2004, and one of those years was a split title. The last back-to-back outright champion was Nebraska in 1994 and 1995.
Saban has won two titles with 'Bama in the last three years and enters this season with the No. 1 overall recruiting class for 2012. You can be sure a few true freshman will make an impact.
The Tide don't have an easy schedule, and it starts right off the bat. They open with Big Ten favorite Michigan in the Cowboys Classic at Cowboys Stadium and have to travel to Arkansas for a date with Razorbacks only two weeks late.
They will get a warm-up for Arkansas when Western Kentucky visits in Week 2, but the trip to Fayetteville is an awfully important game in the SEC West so early in the season.
They don't have a ton of road games this season, but none of them are easy. They'll travel to Missouri and Tennessee in back-to-back weeks in October and play LSU in Death Valley two weeks after that.
Alabama also has to play Auburn at home for the Iron Bowl. That may seem like a blessing, but the Tide have only beaten their bitter rivals once in Tuscaloosa since it moved away from Birmingham.
This young team will be tested early, and Saban will know exactly what he has before they reach their opener in the first week of October.
Can the Tide repeat as champs? Yes. Will they? Unlikely, but they'll be a contender for much of the year.
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