Alabama Preview: Nick Saban Has Tide Focused for Another Title Run

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Alabama Preview: Nick Saban Has Tide Focused for Another Title Run
(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

The Alabama Crimson Tide hope 2009 has a much better ending than its beginning. After a 12-0 start, the Tide stumbled against Florida in the SEC Championship and then fell flat on their face against Utah in the Sugar Bowl.

Still, not many expected an undefeated regular season in year two under Nick Saban; many thought the big jump would come in year three.

With two top-flight recruiting classes on campus, might Alabama be ready to play for a BCS title? To get a better look at the Crimson Tide, I contacted Roll 'Bama Roll for their insight.

 

Is Alabama going to be better on offense with Greg McElroy at QB?

It's certainly possible that Alabama will be better on offense with McElroy at QB, but not necessarily because it is McElroy at QB. That's not a knock on McElroy by any means.

If you look back through the RBR archives, I've been a big booster for him, even during the horrible '07 "if he can't beat out Wilson for the start he must be awful" season. He seems like he's a smart, capable game manager that can read the defenses well enough to take whatever they'll give him, and has enough arm to make plenty of throws.

But the biggest reason the offense should be better than last year is that we should actually have better balance in our play calling and a greater ability to generate "explosive" plays—whereas last year we were really a power run team that prized brutal, chain-moving efficiency over big chunks of yardage.

Everyone knows Julio Jones by now, but coming out of fall camp, Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks have wowed quite a few people with their playmaking abilities, while Mike McCoy, Brandon Gibson, and even true freshman Kevin Norwood have looked like they'll be able to contribute in the passing game as well.

Further, the TE position is just as deep as last year and has become a very prominent fixture in our offense. Colin Peek should be an NFL-caliber player this season, while Brad Smelley made a big splash as a pass catcher last year as a true freshman. Preston Dial has also been around for a while and should be able to really break out now that he's out of Nick Walker and Travis McCall's shadow.

Even top of that, Julio is going to be better this year as well. As hard as that may be to believe, he wasn't healthy for most of last year (sports hernia, wrist, and shoulder injuries were all fixed in the offseason), and now that he's been in the system for a year, he knows the offense better and has learned enough positions that he can be lined up in more places and better utilized.

The ground game may take a bit of a dip, but it shouldn't be a big one. Mark Ingram (second leading rusher last season) is back, as is Roy Upchurch, who should have been a star for years now if he could just stay healthy.

The biggest question is whether or not the offensive line can come together as a unit like last year's model. Much has been made about losing Andre Smith, Antoine Caldwell, and Marlon Davis, all of whom were multi-year starters and, in the case of Smith and Caldwell, All-American/SEC selections, and replacing them won't be an easy task.

But Mike Johnson at LG and Drew Davis at RT are solid veterans, while William Vlachos and James Carpenter locked down C and LT, respectively, during the spring and haven't looked back. The only position that has been up in the air is RG, but Barrett Jones has been working there since before the first fall scrimmage and is pretty well entrenched at this point.

If these five can come together and play as a unit and manage to stay healthy and in the same grouping (our two worst offensive showings last season were when players were injured/missing and everyone else had to shuffle to an unfamiliar position), then they have a good shot at reaching the admittedly high bar set by last year's group.

 

Thousand-yard rusher Glen Coffee is gone. Who steps up here to replace him?

Last season, Coffee was certainly the main guy in the backfield, but we were using two and three backs in a game throughout the season and are likely to continue on in that philosophy this year.

As mentioned previously, Ingram was the second leading rusher last year, and all indications out of camp are that the starting job is his to lose.

He's added some bulk to be an even better between the tackles runner (his bread and butter last year) and has also improved as a pass catcher, following his blocks and letting a play develop instead of just trying to bounce outside (something the true freshman in him struggled with last season), and he has really made a commitment to be a solid pass blocker as well.

He's going to be the guy you see in the primary role at RB this season unless something (knock on wood) unfortunate happens.

 

We saw what happened without Outland Trophy winner Andre Smith in the Sugar Bowl. With just two starters back, who has step up on the Alabama offensive line to make it dominant again this year?

Well, first off it wasn't so much that we were without Andre in the Sugar Bowl that led to the offensive implosion, but the way in which we were without him. We had to completely and unexpectedly shuffle our line just a few days beforehand, and to add insult to injury (or rather injury to insult in this case), Mike Johnson, who moved over from LG to LT in his place, was taken out of the game on our first offensive series.

So it's not even that we were working with a line that had only a few days to practice in that particular grouping; we were instantly working with a line that had never played together before, and as any observer of football knows, an offensive line's chemistry is a fickle thing that has to be developed over time.

With that being said, I don't think anyone in particular has to step up to make this year's model as dominant as last year's; we've got plenty of talent on the O-line thanks to some solid recruiting over the last few years.

But what we do need is for everyone to remain healthy and consistent in their position and not have anyone shuffling out of position mid-game.

 

The defense has nine starters back. Are they the best unit in the nation?

That's not entirely accurate. Brandon Fanney, last year's starter at Jack linebacker, transferred over the summer, so we really only have eight starters back.

That's not a big deal though, considering Fanney, solid against the run though he was, was an absolute non-factor in the pass rush (something that really came back to bite us against Florida and Utah), and his departure actually opens the way for guys like Eryk Anders (our best edge rusher last season) and Courtney Upshaw to step in and give us some more production from the Jack.

Fanney had also been in the doghouse during spring, sitting several games with the dreaded "undisclosed violations of team rules" and being essentially demoted to the second team defensive line as a pure DE instead of working with the linebackers.

But that's not what you asked. I would happily say that I would put our D up against just about anyone in the country right now with one stipulation: They have to prove that the emphasis on the pass rush that we've heard so much about through spring and fall is actually going to materialize this year.

That was the one aspect of our defense that was lacking last season, and without it I can't say we're the "best."

 

With Rashad Johnson gone, who steps up as the leader of the Tide defense?

I'd have to say Rolando McClain is probably the "leader" of the defense at this point. He called the plays along with Johnson last year and is our most experienced linebacker, so it will be up to him to really step up and make sure the whole defense is on the same page during the game.

He's not a very vocal leader, though, and that's something he's talked about working on and something that coaches have encouraged him with, but there are a couple of salty vets in the secondary in CB Javier Arenas and SS Justin Woodall.

Woodall will likely be the guy that fills Johnson's play calling shoes in the backfield, but both will be called on to really help make sure the defense is ready and knows the where and what on the field.

 

Nick Saban has brought in stellar recruiting classes the last two years. Who are the top freshmen that could make a significant impact this year?

On defense, Kerry Murphy springs to mind on the defensive line. He spent a year at Hargrave Military Academy before reporting and suffered a tremendous tragedy early in camp with the murder of his brother. He's understandably missed some of fall camp, but he's a tremendous talent that will see plenty of time.

Likewise, CB Dre Kirkpatrick has worked with the first team defense as an extra DB and is just too good to keep off the field.

On offense, both Kevin Norwood and Trent Richardson have impressed so far in camp at WR and RB, respectively, though Richardson has the much better shot at playing time. The No. 2 running back in the country last year, he has the kind of speed and power that Saban covets in a running back.

 

Who do you see as the biggest challenger to the Tide in the West: LSU or Ole Miss, and why?

I think both are legitimate challenges, but LSU probably has the edge on the Rebels. They have a ton of talent across the board, and with an SEC veteran like John Chavis running the defense, they should be back to form after last year's disappointing display.

Ole Miss just has to have too many things go its way to be a lock, but at the same time they are in a very good position with experienced playmakers at QB, RB, and WR and a mean front seven to be one of the best offenses in the division.

Their biggest knocks are a talent drain on the O-line, with none of the new projected starters really impressing, and a secondary that finished dead last in the league against the pass last year.

LSU is just the better overall team at this point, though as the season goes on that could very easily change.

 

How is the mindset of Alabama fans different going into this year's game against Virginia Tech versus last year against Clemson?

I don't know that the mindset really is different, honestly. I think we're certainly more confident in our chances, but at the same time the idea that "we have to win this to prove that we belong here" is exactly the same.

 

What is your prediction for Alabama?

I hate doing predictions because I'm a total homer and I never pick against the Tide no matter who is on the schedule, yet really don't want to be a jinx either, so I'll just say that we have a very good chance to win every game on the schedule. Barring substantial injuries, not winning the division and making it back to Atlanta will be a big letdown.

 

My Thoughts on Alabama...

While Alabama had a very, very good season last year, the taste left in many people's mouths is the losses to Florida and Utah to end the season. But I think those losses will really fuel Saban and his team to come back strong in 2009.

Offensively, you have to be concerned about losing guys like Smith and Caldwell from the offensive line. A lot will ride on how well those talented, young players can step up. Even with leaving as Alabama's all-time leader in total offense, John Parker Wilson had kind of worn out his welcome in Tuscaloosa. It will be interesting to see how much more dynamic McElroy can be.

The skill positions are loaded with talent—just gotta make sure the new line blocks for them. I think I am more concerned about this line than RBR.

On defense, Alabama could be the best in the nation. I agree with RBR that an improved pass rush is needed. Saban spends a lot of time with DBs, so that will help the pass rush, but the best pass defense is a pass rush many times. Where Alabama is very strong is against the run, which is paramount in the SEC. Mt. [Terrence] Cody is back for his senior season looking to make more running backs look like pork chops.

At 15/1, I think Alabama is a good sleeper pick to win the BCS title. They have the players, the coach, and a manageable schedule. Starting the season with Virginia Tech will be a doozy, as will a trip to Oxford and home date vs. LSU, but the Tide will likely be favored in 10 or 11 games this year. I look for Alabama to win the West again this year and meet Florida, again, in the SEC Championship Game.

 

My Prediction...

10-2, 6-2, SEC Championship Game

Best-Case Scenario: 12-0
Worst-Case Scenario: 8-4

 

Vegas Odds

BCS Championship 15/1
SEC Championship 9/2 (tied for second)
Win Total: 9.5

Thanks again to Roll 'Bama Roll for their insight.

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