Entering last season, the Alabama Crimson Tide football team was coming off a very unimpressive 7-6 record after starting 2007 with a 6-2 record.
Most college football experts didn’t expect the Crimson Tide to be that much better in 2008. Most predicted at best eight or nine wins and maybe a Peach Bowl appearance.
But with only nine seniors returning, a bunch of freshman, and several upper classmen, Nick Saban’s team ended the season with a 12-2 mark and a top-10 ranking to the shock and amazement of most of the nation.
Many thought Alabama would improve under Saban, but not this soon.
Now, coming into 2009, Alabama has high expectations, and they should. Bama has most of its players returning from last year—including sophomore wide receiver Julio Jones, running back Mark Ingram, and hopefully a healthy Roy Upchurch and most of its defensive starters are returning.
Yes, they do have to replace All-American Andre Smith on the offensive line, All-SEC performer Rashad Johnson at free safety, and John Parker Wilson at quarterback, but if they can do that it, this could the year.
Why you may ask? First all, their schedule is very favorable. With the exception of the Auburn and Ole Miss games, all of Alabama’s toughest contests are played in Tuscaloosa, including Tennessee and LSU. Even the season opener versus Virginia Tech will be played in SEC-friendly Atlanta. Also, they do not have to face Florida or Georgia this year until the SEC Championship game.
Second, the competition will not be as good as most years. Yes, LSU and Ole Miss will be good this year, but LSU still has to come to Tuscaloosa with a new quarterback and we saw how that turned out last year.
Although the Rebels are favorites by many to take the SEC West, they have to replace not one, but two first-round draft choices on defense and offense and most importantly, they haven’t shown they can win under pressure as favorites.
Even with Eli Manning at quarterback several years ago, Ole Miss never made it to Atlanta and has been the only SEC Western Division team not to make it to the Championship game. This may be their year to pull it off, but they are going to have to prove it.
Rounding out the West will be an improving Arkansas Razorbacks team who also has to come to Tuscaloosa, a struggling Auburn team with no quarterback, and a Mississippi State team with a new head coach. All teams Alabama should handle and did handle last season.
As good as John Parker Wilson was last year, Greg McElroy should be just as good or even better running this offense. McElroy has a better arm than Wilson and he played in a few games last season including an impressive touchdown drive against a first team Auburn defense in last year’s Iron Bowl. It doesn’t hurt to have Jones to throw to either, but other wide outs need to step up this year to take the pressure and the double teams off of him.
But the strength of this team may be its defense, which only gave up 14 points a game last season. The defense lost only two starters from last year and that's Johnson and Bobby Greenwood.
Returning will be All-SEC and third team All-American linebacker Roland McCain, All-SEC and consensus All-American in big defensive tackle Terrence Cody and Freshman All-American Dont’a Hightower. The weakest link on this defense will be the secondary, which wasn’t even that bad last year.
There are still quite a few questions that still need to be answered on this team, but not enough from keeping them from making a run at a National Championship in 2009.