Alabama is beginning its quest for a third straight BCS national championship crown, but in order to succeed, there are a variety of questions that must be answered quickly.
A test looms near for Alabama football on August 31 with Virginia Tech before one of the most anticipated games of the year occurs on September 14 when Nick Saban's Crimson Tide must travel to College Station to take on Texas A&M—the only team to defeat Saban and Co. last season.
In other words, answers to the most burning questions are needed in a hurry. Alabama lost nine players to the NFL draft, so much of the doubt around the team has to deal with who steps up at critical spots.
If the following questions are not answered as soon as possible, Alabama may have issues reaching the dream of becoming the first team to win three straight titles.
Who Steps Up at Cornerback?
Dee Milliner has taken his talents to the NFL, so new names must step up across from senior cornerback Deion Belue. He started all 14 games last year, and the junior-college transfer is easily the No. 1 option at corner.
After Belue, it's a toss-up.
Originally, it would have been easy to pencil in sophomore Geno Smith for the gig across from Belue. Instead, Smith was arrested for DUI recently, according to a report from Andrew Gribble of AL.com. His status is now up in the air, despite his playing in 13 games as a freshman and recording nine tackles and two pass breakups.
Who will step up and lay claim to the No. 2 spot in an effective manner? Will it be senior John Fulton after notching 15 tackles a year ago? What about Bradley Sylve, who showed flashes in 12 games last year?
Questions on the offensive side of the ball make this one more important than it normally would be. If the secondary cannot stop the pass, Alabama could be primed for an upset.
Can A.J. McCarron Do Enough?
A.J. McCarron is the definition of a game-managing quarterback, and that is just fine for a program like Alabama.
The senior is 24-2 as a starter entering 2013. Last year he threw for 2,933 yards and a school-record 30 touchdowns while completing over 67 percent of his passes.
The issue with a player like McCarron is that he does not necessarily elevate the play of the talent around him, instead relying on it for success.
Questions abound around McCarron. Running back T.J. Yeldon is a stud after rushing for over 1,000 yards last season, but questions behind him present an issue. Other not-so-familiar names, such as Kenyan Drake, Dee Hart and freshman sensation Derrick Henry, will have to answer the call as running back depth.
If McCarron's supporting cast cannot step up, his play could dip, despite his having two seasons of starting experience.
One of the major issues will be the players in front of McCarron tasked with protecting him.
Will New Faces on the Offensive Line Be Effective?
The offensive trenches pose the biggest issue to Alabama's hopes for a third title in as many years.
Gone are elite players such as Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker. Jones went the latest in the 2013 NFL draft, at No. 113. Warmack and Fluker went back to back at No. 10 and No. 11, respectively.
The good news is that junior left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio is still around and was every bit as talented as the aforementioned names, hence why he was never replaced when protecting McCarron's blind side. Senior guard Anthony Steen returns as well.
As of now, the competition to replace the big three is not going so hot, as Saban told the media, per ESPN's Alex Scarborough:
Well, I wasn’t real pleased with the way they played today, to be honest with you...I’ve always been really pleased with the way our offensive line has played and progressed, but I thought today we didn’t get a lot of movement. Too many times we had a soft pocket, we got pressure in the pocket, made some mental errors up front, had a couple false starts—things that our offensive line typically has not done...So hopefully this will be something they can learn from and improve on, and we’ll get better and continue to progress.
Scarborough goes on to say that sophomore Ryan Kelly figures to play at center, while Arie Kouandjio and Austin Shepherd are names to watch for the other two spots.
It's alarming any time a position group loses so many players at once—departing for the pros or not. If the offensive line cannot gel properly, then McCarron is going to have a hard time getting the ball to his weapons, and the slew of backs may not have consistent holes to run through.
Like at any level of football, Alabama's title shot rests on the shoulders of its lineman up front.
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