The names and faces involved with the program may change, but there is one thing that will never waver for the Alabama Crimson Tide on A-Day: expectations.
No matter who walks in or out the door, Nick Saban's squad is expected to compete for a national championship and win the SEC crown. Anything less is deemed a massive disappointment. Without trophies, there is no satisfaction in Tuscaloosa.
And heading into year seven of Saban's tenure, it's hard to blame Tide fans for thinking so highly of their club. Last season was yet another coronation for Alabama, finishing off Notre Dame in fine form to capture its second consecutive national championship. Saban now has three titles in six seasons since taking over in 2007, reviving a fallen program into a program so strong some wonder whether the Tide could beat an NFL team on a yearly basis.
Though Saban lost some notable players—almost an entire offensive line''s worth—Alabama is already locked in as a favorite to three-peat, per Bovada. A.J. McCarron returns and brings with him an offense that may be more pass-heavy than in recent years.
But before Saban embarks on another national title quest, he must first answer the lingering questions facing his team. With that in mind, here is a breakdown of a few key storylines worth watching on A-Day.
A New Era on the Offensive Line
There's no question that Alabama had the best offensive line in college football last season; some would even argue it ranked among the best in the sport's history. The five-man unit boasted two All-Americans in center Barrett Jones and guard Chance Warmack, and tackles Cyrus Kouandjio and D.J. Fluker were probably the second-best duo in the nation behind Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews at Texas A&M.
Kouandjio returns this season, but the other three are all off to play on Sundays. Fluker and Warmack are considered first-round picks, while Jones would be if centers were drafted like a premium position. (Read: They're not. At all.)
Though there is no such thing as rebuilding at Alabama, this year's offensive line crop is as close as the Crimson Tide get. In typical Nick Saban fashion, he'll be replacing the departed starters with a bevy of top-tier recruits, but that still leaves questions about their viability as a national-championship unit.
Saturday will be the Crimson Tide's first chance to judge their starting five hosses. Kouandjio is joined by Arie Kouandjio, Ryan Kelly, Anthony Steen and Austin Shepherd with the first team this season, 60 percent of the line born anew.
Kelly is the biggest question mark at this point. A sophomore with little experience to speak of, he is being pushed hard by Chad Lindsay in spring practice. Kelly is the strong favorite at this point and will be with the first team on Saturday, but any sign of struggle could lead to a hook.
Shepherd also bears watching, as the hulking right tackle will see plenty of competition from motivated JUCO transfer Leon Brown.
Overall, this unit is set for Saturday. Their chemistry just has to start shining through for it to stay that way.
Will Kenyan Drake be the Next Brilliant Bama Backup RB?
Taking over for the departed Eddie Lacy, returning sophomore T.J. Yeldon will take over the starter's workload in 2013. The Tide will certainly miss Lacy and the powerful running style he brought to the table, but they should be just fine with Yeldon at the helm. As a freshman, he rushed for 1,108 yards and 12 touchdowns on only 175 carries—an astounding 6.3 yards per attempt.
Though impressive, Yeldon's season has become par for the course for an Alabama backup running back. The last time a "backup" Alabama running back rushed for fewer than 500 yards was 2006—the year before Saban took over. Future NFL rushers Glen Coffee, Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson and Lacy have all held that backup distinction before, looking ascendant in that role prior to bursting out as a starter.
Yeldon is expected to have that burst in 2013. The only question—at least initially—was who would replace him. Sophomore Kenyan Drake and highly touted freshman Derrick Henry battled for that spot, but that situation resolved itself in the most organic fashion possible: Henry got injured. The freshman, who is also the all-time leading rusher in American high school football history, suffered a tibia fracture and will have to undergo surgery.
But what's Henry's loss should be Drake's gain. Considered one of the best running backs in the Class of 2012, Drake lost out on the backup job to Yeldon last season but still managed to compile 281 yards and five touchdowns on 41 carries.
Those stats were nearly all in garbage-time work, so it's hard to take much away from that performance. The Tide are obviously pleased with his work this spring, and all signs point to him being a major contributor in 2013. Having him prove it in a game setting will just be soothing comfort for Crimson Tide nation.
Finding Answers in the Secondary
If there was one weakness in the Tide's arsenal last season, it was in the back end of their secondary. Alabama was prone to lapses in coverage due to lack of experience. That was never more apparent than when the Tide somehow made LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger look like a star—not an easy task, as any Tigers fan would tell you.
Those weaknesses couldn't derail Alabama's charge to a national title, but there may be even more questions for the unit this season. Top cornerback Dee Milliner entered the NFL draft and will likely fall somewhere in the top five next week. Milliner was a smart defensive leader and combined with safety Robert Lester to make up for the mistakes of their younger teammates.
Deion Belue will take those in 2013. A veteran face who started alongside Milliner last season on the edges, Belue understands the pressures that come along with being a senior leader.
"It's my job to do that because I'm a senior now," Belue said (via AL.com's Andrew Gribble). "It was like my first year when I came in with Dee Milliner and Rob to help me out. I feel like it's my job to do the same for the next person that's coming in to try to learn."
Safety Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix will join Belue as the stalwarts on this team, but who will join them in the starting lineup remains a question mark. Geno Smith has all the talent in the world; his youth is just cause for some understandable hand-wringing.
And the other safety spot alongside Clinton-Dix is open wider than a barn door. There are a number of names vying for the starting nod, and the situation isn't likely to be solved on Saturday. That being said, any slight edge could be huge in the eyes of Saban heading into the summer.