With the start of fall practice last week, the Alabama Crimson Tide's defense of their BCS national title is officially underway. As a team, there is as much to gain as there is to lose. Individually, Alabama's leaders are in a similar position, but for a few Alabama athletes, there may be more to lose than there is to gain.
Let's remember that while these guys are came to Alabama with the dream of winning multiple championships, many of them are also here to make a better life for themselves long after their days at the Capstone have come and gone.
The beginning of fall practice will lay everything on the line. Personal goals will often be met, but, unfortunately, many will go by the wayside. Everyone on the team will be put to the test in some way, shape or form.
With that in mind, here are a few young men who have possibly more to lose than they have to gain in 2012.
Barrett Jones was good enough in 2011 to win the Outland Trophy as the left tackle for Alabama. The first team 2011 AFCA All-American had very little reason to return for his senior season after the Tide won the BCS title last year, the second for Jones.
Jones ultimately passed up on possibly being a first-round NFL draft pick to come back to Alabama. Even more intriguing is the fact that he did so to leave his days at left tackle behind him and move into the center role, replacing the now departed William Vlachos.
While this position change will give Jones the opportunity to show potential NFL employers his versatility and add value to his draft stock, it is also a huge risk. Coach Nick Saban rightfully expects that Jones will have no trouble making the adjustment, but any hiccups in the process could eventually hurt Jones when the 2013 draft rolls around.
Furthermore, Jones passed up on a hefty NFL contract. Any unfortunate injuries to Jones could deeply cut into his future earnings, as the big boys of professional football do not often like to take chances on damaged goods.
Again, Jones will likely make the move to center seamlessly. But the simple fact that he returned for another year of amateur football is a major gamble that not many would have taken.
Junior running back Eddie Lacy has paid his dues. He has made the most of the opportunities he has been given while running in the shadows of two of the best ball carriers in Alabama history in Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. But now the focus is all on Lacy.
Lacy enters fall camp as the first-string running back at Alabama, and along with that title, he inherits the pressures that come with it. No longer will he be the guy that gives the elusive Richardson a breather. Lacy is now the guy.
As the saying goes, if you want to be the man, you have got to beat the man. This will be the task set upon a slew of other talented running backs in the Alabama stable. Junior Jalston Fowler saw quality time in 2011 and hopes to see his playing time increase this fall.
Behind Fowler are a pair of highly touted freshmen in Dee Hart and T. J. Yeldon who both impressed in spring camp. Starting jobs are not guaranteed under Saban. They are earned. The only guarantee here is that Lacy will have to work even harder if he wants to keep it.
If Lacy is to maintain the reputation that Ingram and Richardson left for him, he is going to have to fight off these guys in the process. Lacy has waited his turn and done everything needed of him to earn the job going into camp, but the heat will be turned up as he tries to keep it.
Any slip-ups by Lacy could leave him as just another also-ran in Alabama tailback history. But if he can handle the both job and the pressures that come with it, his own pot of gold will be waiting at the end of the rainbow.
Similarly to Lacy, linebacker Nico Johnson has been paying his dues and waiting for his turn in the national spotlight. Johnson has been an invaluable part of the Alabama defense since he came to the Tide three years ago. With the departure of Dont'a Hightower to the NFL, Johnson is now the man that the Alabama defense will revolve around.
Hightower followed Rolando McLain and did a tremendous job of it. Johnson will now do the same for Hightower. Johnson comes into fall camp as the Tide's leading returning tackler from the 2011 championship squad. He will be expected to direct the entire defense while maintaining his position at an All-American level. The most experienced player on the Tide defense, Johnson will now have the weight of the defense on his shoulders.
If he succeeds, a first-round draft pick awaits. If he fails or allows a youngster like sophomore Adrian Hubbard to outshine him, his stock will likely drop. Like Jones, Johnson could have left Alabama early for the bright lights and brighter paychecks of the NFL, but he chose to return for his senior year.
It is again a risk that not many would have taken and any serious injury would greatly harm his future chances at the next level.
Alabama enters the 2012 season with one major question offensively: Who will emerge as the go-to receiver?
Julio Jones was the main attraction for three years. He was preceded by D.J. Hall and Keith Brown, both of whom were dependable, and was followed by Marquis Maze.
This year, however, the Tide goes into fall camp without a definitive leader at wideout. Juniors Kenny Bell and Kevin Norwood would appear likely to emerge as the leaders of this bunch, but their experience is lacking and neither of them have managed to stand out in their first two seasons at Alabama.
Sophomores DeAndrew White and Christion Jones showed signs of excellence at times in 2011 and again in spring camp, but, again, they have yet to prove much in real SEC action.
Alabama beings in a trio of highly touted freshmen in Amari Cooper, Chris Black and Eddie Williams who will challenge the previous four for their roles.
At the end of the day, there is a wide open door of opportunity for every one of these young receivers. The Tide is expected by many to open up the passing game some this season and the ones that step up their game will likely thrive. Those who do not answer the challenge will regret the lost opportunity and possibly get lost in the shuffle.
Alabama has possibly its best group of receivers in decades and while this provides a lot of opportunity, there is also quite a lot to lose by those who are not up to the task.
Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart is one of the most sought after assistant coaches in all of college football. He has led Alabama's elite defenses to levels not seen since the days of Bear Bryant.
His reward for this has been the endless hawking of other schools for his service. Many believe Smart to be the top assistant coach in the country and he has passed up multiple opportunities to become a head coach over the last few years.
While Smart will surely move on at some point and take his chance at the helm of a major program, Alabama has managed to keep him paid well enough to delay his future plans for the time being.
Coming off a 2011 championship season in which Smart led arguably the best defense in the nation, many expected him to take his chances with a head coaching job right then. Now, even though the Tide is extremely talented, Smart will have to prove once again that he can take a younger and less experienced defense to the top of the mountain.
While it is unlikely that the Bama defense will fall too far from its 2011 level, Smart does inherit some risk by returning for another campaign. Top level programs will only come calling so much before they start losing interest. If Smart is, well, smart, he will accept one of these positions soon, while his stock is still on the rise.