For Alabama football fans born after the pinnacle of the Bear Bryant era, this is certainly the golden age.
How good has the Crimson Tide been under Nick Saban?
The greatest fear around Tuscaloosa on a year-to-year basis is the program falling to the abyss of the 2010 season.
Alabama, which won the BCS National Championship in 2009, went 10-3 with a heartbreaking 28-27 loss to No. 1 Auburn in the regular-season finale.
It also went to the Capital One Bowl—the SEC’s top non-BCS postseason game. The Crimson Tide smashed No. 7 Michigan State, 49-7.
In other words, even the worst of times after year one of the Saban era haven’t been all that bad.
The 2010 season was important for another reason: Alabama went on to win back-to-back BCS National Championships.
Whichever Crimson Tide team broke the string of national titles inevitably was going to be compared to the “massively underachieving” 2010 team.
Naturally that’s where the 2013 squad found itself after ending the season with consecutive losses to Auburn and Oklahoma.
So now the narrative—and the comparison—changes.
Can the 2014 Alabama football team achieve the same heights reached by the 2011 bounce-back team?
Looking at recent history it would be easy to fall into that trap.
After all, there are some similarities. The plainest of those comparisons is the starting quarterback position, which seemed to be an area with potential growing pains when Greg McElroy graduated, leaving the position to AJ McCarron.
Now McCarron—like McElroy—is headed for the NFL, leaving a new quarterback to take the reins.
Transfer Jacob Coker, who comes in with the hype of a potential superstar, seems the most logical option to claim the position.
Furthermore, the Crimson Tide were loaded at tailback headed into 2011—led by Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy—just as the team will be next fall.
T.J. Yeldon, Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry give Alabama a backfield that rivals that group.
The 2011 receiving corps also didn’t feature any pass-catchers as dynamic as Amari Cooper. This year’s group also contains tremendous depth, including Christion Jones, DeAndrew White and Robert Foster, who redshirted in 2013.
In reality, though, the 2014 squad faces a couple substantial obstacles to match its 2011 counterpart.
First of all, Alabama’s offensive line that year turned out to be spectacular.
There were preseason questions, but four starters returned compared to the three who return this season.
Forget the numbers for a minute, though.
The accomplishments of the 2011 group speak for themselves.
Every member of the starting 2011 offensive line—Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack, William Vlachos, Anthony Steen and D.J. Fluker—eventually earned first-team All-SEC selections.
|Alabama's 2011 O-Line Accolades|
|Barrett Jones||LT||2011, 2012|
|Anthony Steen||RG||2013 (AP only)|
|D.J. Fluker||RT||2012 (Coaches only)|
That’s not to say the 2014 offensive line can’t surprise and do exactly the same.
Incoming freshman Cameron Robinson, ranked by 247Sports as the top offensive tackle in the nation, enrolled early and has a legitimate chance to start during the season.
Leon Brown will need to hold off Robinson for one tackle position.
Grant Hill—another youngster with great potential—likely will be a favorite for the other bookend along the offensive line, especially if Austin Shepherd moves inside to guard.
Ryan Kelly is already a solid center who could easily break out as an all-conference player this year.
Arie Kouandjio also returns after his first season as a starter.
The biggest difference comes on defense.
The 2011 edition of the Crimson Tide returned nine starters, including all four linebackers and its entire secondary.
This year’s Alabama team has more work to do on defense.
Three quarters of the Crimson Tide secondary—cornerback Deion Belue and safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri—are gone. The other cornerback position served as a problem spot for much of 2013.
Alabama also loses two of its four linebackers, including C.J. Mosley—arguably the most valuable player on last year’s team.
Some of the departed starters have clear front-runners for their positions—perhaps none more than A’Shawn Robinson, who enjoyed a strong true-freshman season in 2013.
Can Alabama reload on defense? Absolutely.
Even the best programs, though, endure growing pains when breaking in half a new starting lineup.
A Charmin Ultra-Soft early schedule should allow the new Crimson Tide starters to learn in low-risk situations.
The total schedule isn’t much tougher, with many of Alabama’s biggest games coming at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Its biggest road game comes at LSU on Nov. 8, while Alabama hosts Auburn and Texas A&M.
Such an easy slate makes it possible for the 2014 team to duplicate the accomplishments of its 2011 counterpart.
So many questions on defense and along the offensive line, though, will likely ultimately leave the Crimson Tide short of their hopes to win the 2014 national championship.