Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide are expected to contend for their third national title in four seasons.
In a state like Alabama that breathes in passion for college football, the buzz for the kickoff of the 2012 season is at a fever pitch just days away from kickoff.
Entering the season as the defending national champions, Alabama fans are anxious to see if the Tide can notch its first back-to-back national titles since 1978-79.
Nick Saban may have lost a number of the key contributors that formed the nucleus of the Tide’s title-winning squads in 2009 and 2011, but the strength of this year’s squad appears to lie in the trenches on both sides of the line of scrimmage—where the depth chart is littered with upperclassmen.
However, there are several experienced veterans at other positions from last season that return—including quarterback A.J. McCarron, running back Eddie Lacy, linebackers Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley, and safety Robert Lester amongst others.
Alabama begins the season ranked at No. 2 , but what are the Tide’s chances to collect its 15th national title?
Who will be the Tide's MVP on offense and defense?
Which newcomer will have the biggest impact?
Find out the answers to those questions and more in this jam-packed 2012 preview for the Alabama Crimson Tide.
The transfer of Sims leaves Alabama without an experienced backup QB.
The offseason for the Crimson Tide was fairly quiet, with another trip to the White House to celebrate the 2011 title serving as the highlight.
On the bright side, Saban signed a contract extension that should keep him in Tuscaloosa for the remainder of his career.
The transfer of backup quarterback Phillip Sims leaves little in the way of depth and experience behind McCarron and makes the rising junior’s health a priority this season.
The down time was also devoid of any major injuries, which means the team was able to enter fall camp at full strength.
Lacy is expected to carry on the Tide's tradition of excellence at RB.
New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier—who took over for mentor Jim McElwain—will lean on an experienced quarterback and a dominant group of blockers up front to help ease into his system.
The offensive line—with three potential All-American candidates, including center Barrett Jones—may be the best unit in the country.
McCarron will be throwing to a green group of receivers, but the talent and depth there may be the best collection of talent at that position since Saban took over the program.
Junior Eddie Lacy takes the reins from Trent Richardson and looks to carry on the tradition of bruising Tide tailbacks, but watch for freshman T.J. Yeldon to eventually take over Lacy’s sidekick role.
Even though there is a chance they could struggle at some points this season, Alabama, with its strength residing in the trenches, should remain as one of the SEC's top offenses this fall.
Williams and the DL could be the defense's biggest strength heading into the 2012 season.
Even though the losses are heavy for the Tide defense—especially in the secondary and linebacker segments—plenty of talent remains for Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart to field another dominant unit.
The defensive line will be anchored by a pair of seniors in nose tackle Jesse Williams and defensive end Damion Square.
Johnson and Mosley have already proven to be two of the better linebackers in the SEC, but newcomers Trey Depriest and Adrian Hubbard each looked dominant in the spring and each appears headed for a breakout season in 2012.
Lester will be joined by junior Dee Milliner as the only members of the secondary with starting experience on the collegiate level, but sophomore safeties Vinnie Sunseri—a freshman All-SEC performer last season—and Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix should give the Tide a strong rotation to fill the shoes of Mark Barron. (h/t Izzy Gould, al.com)
Corner—more specifically depth at the position—is a concern with the recent unexpected departure of JUCO transfer Travell Dixon, but fellow JUCO import Deion Belue and junior John Fulton are in line to takeover at the spot opposite Milliner. (h/t Jimmy McMurrey, B/R)
As long as Saban is running the show, fans should feel confident that Alabama will possess a powerful defense—with the fact that the Tide has finished no lower than fifth nationally in total defense over the last four seasons helping to reinforce that belief.
Shelley converted on 21-of-27 field goal attempts last season.
Alabama returns kickers Jeremy Shelley and Cade Foster—with Shelley’s five field goals in the 21-0 BCS National Championship Game victory over LSU more than atoning for the duo’s mishaps in the regular-season meeting against the Tigers.
The pair will also have the benefit of maintaining the same long snapper (Carson Tinker) and holder (McCarron) from last season.
Junior Cody Mandell—who averaged slightly less than 39 yards per punt last season—will handle the punting duties for the third consecutive season.
The return units have no such luxuries with the graduation of Marquis Maze, but sophomore Christion Jones leads a deep group of candidates that could take over as the team’s primary return man.
Nussmeier is the biggest addition to the Tide's coaching staff this season.
Nussmeier and linebackers coach Lance Thompson—who also served on Saban’s staff at Alabama from 2007-08—are the newest additions to Saban’s staff.
Smart—possibly the nation’s hottest commodity in the assistant coaching ranks—has resisted opportunities to leave Tuscaloosa and will begin his fifth season as the Tide’s defensive coordinator. (h/t Andrew Gribble, al.com)
Of course, Saban is the sport’s current alpha male in the coaching profession and with every title he racks up from this point, it will further cement a legacy that will undoubtedly place him in consideration as one of the greatest coaches in the history of college football.
The season-opening matchup against Denard Robinson and the Wolverines will provide a tough test out of the gates for Alabama.
Unlike the daunting schedule that faced them in 2010 (the last time Alabama entered a season as the defending champs), the slate in 2012 appears a bit friendlier for a title run—although not by much.
The season opener features a neutral site (at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas) contest against No. 8 Michigan—the preseason favorites in the Big Ten—and a road test against SEC West foe and No. 10 Arkansas just two weeks later.
After the Tide’s bye week the first week of October, a manageable (but still potentially challenging) four-game stretch begins that features road dates at Missouri and Tennessee followed by a home contest against Mississippi State and ending with the much-anticipated showdown at No. 3 LSU on Nov. 3.
Alabama closes with three straight games that will be played in Bryant-Denny Stadium, including meetings with SEC newcomer Texas A&M and the finale against rival Auburn.
If Alabama can leave Fayetteville with an unblemished record, the showdown with LSU could be the only thing standing in its way of a return trip to the BCS national title game.
Alabama is a safe bet to beat rival Auburn for the fourth time in the last five meetings.
The only correct answer to this is the Iron Bowl.
Alabama fans and players cannot possibly forget the 28-27 loss to Auburn the last time the two rivals tangled in Bryant-Denny Stadium.
With that memory fresh in their minds and a small but decorated group of seniors—players like Jones, Chance Warmack, Williams, Square, Johnson and Lester—playing the final home game of their careers, Alabama stands a great chance to knock off the Tigers for the fourth time in the last five years.
The college football world will once again tune in to the Nov. 3 meeting between Alabama and LSU.
The games with Michigan and Arkansas should prove to be challenges considering that both teams are ranked in the top 10 in the preseason and both are away from home.
However, the one game that presents the biggest challenge for Alabama is the clash in Death Valley on Nov. 3 at LSU.
The Tigers have the talent and more than enough motivation to knock off a team that humiliated them in the Superdome eight months ago.
Les Miles and the Tigers will once again provide the biggest obstacle for Alabama in 2012.
Continuing the same theme, Les Miles and the LSU Tigers have had all offseason to stew over their loss to Alabama in the BCS title game rematch.
Considering how Alabama reacted in a similar fashion after watching Auburn march to the 2010 national title, LSU has the potential to use its failure in 2011 to fuel its quest to finish the job in 2012.
With the game taking place in Baton Rouge and LSU enjoying a bye week before the big game, those additional factors could be enough to tilt the scales in favor of the Tigers in this matchup.
Lacy fits the mold of the traditional bruising and punishing RBs that have thrived in the Tide's system.
Lacy will make the transition from backup to a role that has seen his predecessors—Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson—rack up yards, touchdowns and accolades upon their promotion to being the Tide’s feature back.
With a dominant group of linemen blocking for him, Lacy—who has rushed for 1,080 yards and 13 touchdowns in his first two seasons at the Capstone—should be in line for a huge year assuming he can stay healthy.
Mosley could be primed to have a monster year as one of the most experienced returning players on the Tide's defense this season.
Given that Alabama's system is predicated on athletic and physical linebackers and considering the turnover in the secondary, it's likely that one of the linebackers will emerge as the most dominant figure on the Tide's defense this fall.
Mosley appears fully recovered from the nasty dislocated hip he suffered after making an interception in the national championship game.
His 10 tackles in Alabama’s spring game—including one that resulted in the game’s opening points in the form of a safety—led the team and perhaps showed that the rising junior is primed for a bigger role in 2012.
Mosley is a proven playmaker against the run and the pass (103 career tackles, three interceptions and two of them returned for touchdowns), which makes him a candidate to break out this fall.
While receiver Amari Cooper could have a major impact this season, the expectations for Yeldon skyrocketed after he accounted for 180 yards of total offense en route to earning MVP honors at Alabama’s spring game.
Saban has consistently used a two-headed monster at running back, and while junior Jalston Fowler and redshirt freshman Dee Hart are candidates to see touches out of the backfield—neither possesses the versatility to be an every-down back in the manner that Yeldon does.
With Lacy’s struggles to stay healthy, Yeldon could become a major factor in the offense by season’s end.
Fluker could be the nation's top right tackle prospect.
For a school that has seen four players selected in the first round of the NFL draft in each of the last two seasons, the Crimson Tide could line up three players with such ability on their offensive line alone.
Jones and Warmack project as guards at the next level, but right tackle D.J. Fluker could possess the most next level potential out of the group.
Another factor that bodes well for Fluker is the recent trend of offensive tackles taking priority over guards in the first round—so the 6’6”, 335-pound fourth year junior could be one of the top draft eligible tackles in the nation.
Ingram is one of the more active Twitter follows for Alabama fans.
It is not a secret that Alabama football is a big deal, and as is such, there are several prominent alumni and media personalities close to the program that are active on Twitter.
From SEC media king Paul Finebaum to former Tide running back and Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, news about the happenings from inside the program—despite the notorious tight ship ran by Saban—can still be found with a little digging via the social networking realm.
Here are the five best Twitter follows for Alabama Football.
Cecil Hurt – columnist, Tuscaloosa News (has covered Crimson Tide football for three decades and counting)
Alabama FTBL – official Twitter account for the University of Alabama football team.
Andrew Gribble – covers Crimson Tide athletics, including football, for al.com
Paul Finebaum – host of the nationally syndicated radio program, the Paul Finebaum Show, based in Birmingham, Ala.
AJ McCarron and the Tide are odds on favorites to capture the SEC and contend for a national title according to Vegas odds.
With the Tide holding the No. 2 spot in both polls to start the season, it’s no surprise to see them pegged as double-digit favorites in all but two contests—they are favored by nearly a touchdown in their game at Arkansas and they are a two-point underdog at LSU—according to lines released by the Golden Nugget. (h/t Ashton Grewal, covers.com)
LSU’s loss of All-American corner Tyrann Mathieu last week signaled a surge in the Tide’s favor to win the SEC—with Alabama now getting 7-5 odds to claim the SEC’s Western Division and 2-1 odds to bring home the SEC crown, according to online sports book Bovada. (h/t Jack Randall, oddsshark.com)
Meanwhile, only USC has better odds than Alabama to claim the 2012 national title, with the Tide running as a 5-1 favorite to claim their third title in four years, per Bovada. (h/t Mike Pickett, oddsshark.com)
Saban and the Crimson Tide could end up in the Superdome for the second year in a row.
Alabama has a healthy balance featuring a mix of experienced veterans and an influx of hungry newcomers anxious to help the Tide try and capture their third national title in four seasons.
Saban has guided Alabama to three BCS bowls in his five years at Alabama, and as one of the preseason favorites to capture the SEC, the Tide appear to be a safe pick to make a BCS bowl either as the SEC champion or as an at-large selection.
I see Alabama making a return trip to the Superdome for the Sugar Bowl as an at-large selection for the second consecutive season.
In the end, I expect Alabama fall just short of claiming its third national title in four seasons.
The Crimson Tide program is at a special place with an opportunity to be the first school to bring home three crystal footballs in the BCS era of college football.
However, as we have learned from the other programs that have earned two national titles in the last decade—USC, LSU and Florida—the try for the third title has been anything but a charm.
The pressure of maintaining the current equivalent of a dynasty has eventually taken its toll on the teams mentioned above, but with Saban running the show, the recent dominance that Alabama has enjoyed has a different feel to it.
In terms of talent, the only team on Alabama’s schedule that appears to be able to match them roster for roster would be LSU.
I expect both Alabama and LSU to both make it to Nov. 3 unblemished, but the Tigers appear to have the edge being at home and having a bit more in the way of experienced returning starters.
My final prediction for Alabama’s 2012 season would mirror the 2011 season in record and even bowl venue, but ultimately I have them finishing 12-1 (losing to LSU) and settling for an at-large Sugar Bowl berth and victory.