Following a wildly unanticipated success of a season, the Alabama Crimson Tide now face a foe every successful program must face: high expectations.
The Tide seemed to be unstoppable during the 2008 regular season; they were the No. 1 ranked team in the nation for four straight weeks and clinched the SEC West for the first time since 1999.
On top of that, fans were pleased to see the team end their six-year losing streak to in-state rival Auburn with a 36-0 rout in Tuscaloosa.
Although a 20-31 loss in the SEC Championship to future National Champion Florida and an embarrassing 17-31 performance against the Utah Utes left a bitter taste in the mouths of fans, the Tide still had an excellent season.
The success of the past season, coupled with the fact that Nick Saban and Co. have pulled in their second No. 1 Rivals.com ranked recruiting class in a row, leads most to believe that the Tide will enjoy similar success next season. Bama is already considered to be the contender for the Western Division title once again.
But not so fast.
Although Bama does indeed have a lot to look forward to next season, there are also several glaring questions the team must face during the offseason if they are to enjoy success similar to last season. Here are the top five, in no particular order.
1. Who is going to step up at quarterback in the absence of John Parker Wilson?
Now that Bama's starter for the past three years has graduated, the offense will look to either Greg McElroy, Star Jackson, or four-star freshman recruit A.J. McArron to lead them to victory, with junior McElroy or sophomore Jackson being the most probable choices.
McElroy served as Wilson's backup last season, and saw playing time in six games. He threw eight completions on 11 attempts for a completion percentage of 72.7. Fans will remember his fourth quarter touchdown pass to Marquis Maze in last year's Iron Bowl.
Jackson was a four-star recruit and redshirt freshman last season. He is going to be McElroy's main competition for the starting position. There's a lot of buzz around this guy; don't count him out of the No. 1 spot just yet.
I don't see the quarterback position as being the biggest problem for the offense next season. Although changing quarterbacks is always unpredictable, I think Bama fans can count on Saban making the right choice and giving the team a solid starter for '09.
From what I've seen, McElroy has a good arm and is pretty solid, and he at least has a bit of experience under his belt. Although I haven't seen Jackson play, I've heard that he's pretty fast for a quarterback, with a 40 time somewhere in the neighborhood of 4.5. I think the Tide will be set to roll at quarterback after a couple of games.
2. What penalties will the team face following the NCAA textbook violations?
This question is looming large over the heads of Bama fans. Many remember back to 2002, when the program suffered harsh sanctions at the hand of the NCAA. Basically, it was a fan's (and a program's) worst nightmare.
Though many think the program will get off lightly since the school reported the violations this time, the possibility of strict punishment remains.
Since Alabama is a "repeat offender," the NCAA may very well decide to slap some more tough punishment on the Tide. Although the consequences may end up being minor (we won't know until May), a loss of scholarships is a very real possibility.
Regardless of the outcome, the issue is still going to be a thorn in the side of the coaching staff until the NCAA announces their decision.
3. Will the offensive line hold up with the loss of so many starters?
The offensive line, especially Andre Smith, was Alabama's x-factor last season. This became painfully obvious to anyone who saw the Tide's pitiful performance against Utah in the Sugar Bowl. Bama was forced to play without Outland Trophy winner Andre Smith and his backup, Mike Johnson, who went down early in the game with an injury.
Left with only three starters on the line, the Tide were pummeled. The loss can't be placed solely on the lack of depth in the O-line, but it was certainly a big factor.
However, Bama will be forced to do without LT Smith, C Antoine Caldwell, and RG Marlon Davis next season. Caldwell and Davis were both seniors, while Smith left the school as a junior to enter the NFL Draft.
Not to mention the Tide lost tight ends Travis McCall and Nick Walker to graduation as well.
The O-line is definitely going to be a concern for Bama this offseason. They lost a lot of great, award-winning players and must concentrate hard on rebuilding.
4. Can the Tide be as productive at running back without Glen Coffee?
Coffee had what was by far his best college season last year. He started in all 14 games and averaged nearly 100 yards per game. He had 10 touchdowns and an average of 5.9 yards on 233 attempts. He was a dependable, solid, yard-gaining machine last season.
However, even though he left for the NFL Draft, Bama will still have a stable of running backs heading into the '09 season. And when I say stable, I mean stable.
Backups Mark Ingram, Roy Upchurch, and Terry Grant all received touches last season. Ingram, who was a freshman, received playing time during all 14 games of the season and rushed for 12 touchdowns, with an average of 5.1 yards on 143 attempts.
Also, don't forget that Bama has five-star freshman running back recruit Trent Richardson coming to the capstone next season. Richardson scored 26 touchdowns during his senior year in high school; he also averaged 9.29 yards on 225 carries. I've seen video of this kid, and he is a beast. Do not be surprised when Saban puts him on the field next season.
5. Will Nick Saban continue his love affair with oatmeal cream pies?
It is known from interviews that Saban prefers two oatmeal cream pies for his gameday breakfast. I have to assume that the only reason for Bama's two losses last season is that, for whatever reason, Nick did not have access to the Little Debbie snacks he so adores on the mornings of the big games.
After all, both games were played out of town. Perhaps he forgot to pack a box. Perhaps he could not locate the nearest grocery store or gas station.
Maybe he should request that the university include an oatmeal cream pie clause somewhere in his $4 million contract.
So, how does everyone think the Tide will answer these questions?