Early Bird Gets the Champ? Road Blocks to Tempe Come Early for the Tide

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Early Bird Gets the Champ? Road Blocks to Tempe Come Early for the Tide
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Usually for the Alabama Crimson Tide, the meat of the schedule usually begins the third Saturday of October with a matchup versus the Tennessee Volunteers. After Tennessee, big SEC West matchups follow with LSU and the annual Iron Bowl matchup versus in-state rival Auburn. These are the games that usually define the Tide’s season. Not this year.

This year the the rebuilding Vols are pushed back to the fourth Saturday of October to make room for the true tests on the Tide’s 2010 schedule. In a span of 29 days the Tide have matchups versus Penn State, Florida, and trips to Arkansas and South Carolina.

Three of the these four teams are in the top 20 and South Carolina just missed the top 25 finishing fourth among the ”Others receiving votes” in the Associated Press.

Many would believe that LSU or Auburn could give the Tide trouble but don’t count on this happening.

LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson returns to lead an LSU offense that totaled less than 4,000 yards in ’09 ranking the Tigers 102nd in the NCAA in total offense. Les Miles chose this offseason to retain offensive coordinator Gary Crowton to the chagrin of many Bengal fans and to the delight of the rest of the SEC.

The buzz down in the Plains in Auburn is all centered around JUCO transfer and former Florida quarterback Cameron Newton. While Newton should be an upgrade at quarterback over Chris Todd, I do not see the Auburn offense having the success they did last year finishing 13th in the nation on offense and third in the SEC, just 29 yards behind the Tide.

Auburn played their best game of the season last year at home against Alabama and still came up short. In that game Auburn scored on a 67 yard end around and a 72 yard touchdown pass, both easily the two biggest plays the Tide defense gave up all season long. The other Auburn touchdown was set up by an onside kick recovery. Last but not least, Heisman winner Mark Ingram had his worst performance of the season rushing for just 30 yards on 16 carries. All of those occurrences and the Tigers still fell short at Jordan-Hare Stadium nonetheless. The Tigers trip to Bryant-Denny this season should not be as fortunate so look for Nick Saban and the Tide to roll over Auburn in front of 102,000 screaming Tiger haters.

So with the month of November being as easy as it will ever be for the Tide, what’s to stop them from winning the SEC and getting to Arizona for a chance to defend their BCS title? Answer: Five weeks of intense competition in September and October with a visit to Duke sprinkled in. Here is a list of four of the Tide’s early season opponents and why they could give the champs trouble.

September 11 /Penn State/ Tuscaloosa, AL

Why Penn State Could Win: Tailback Evan Royster. Behind Arkansas QB Ryan Mallett, Royster will be the most feared offensive weapon the Tide should face all season long. The past two seasons, Royster has rushed for over 2,400 yards making him a preseason Heisman contender in 2010. The Crimson Tide returns only three players off arguably the nation’s best defense last season, one of whom is returning from a torn ACL in linebacker Donte Hightower. If the Nittany Lions want to upset the Tide, they will have to get a huge performance out of Royster.

Why Alabama Will Win: While Evan Royster returns for a Penn State squad that finished their 2009 campaign ranked eighth in the nation, he may have some trouble repeating the success of his sophomore and junior seasons. Not only did the Nittany Lions graduate half of their offensive line, they lost their offensive leader in quarterback Darryl Clark. Last season Clark threw for over 3,000 yards and had 24 touchdown passes as he lead Penn State to an 11 win season and a bowl win over LSU.

The real concerns for Joe Pa and Penn State in this game lie on the defensive side of the football. Penn State lost the heart of their defense in LB Sean Lee who was a second round draft choice of the Dallas Cowboys. Along with Lee, Penn State lost five other starters on a defense that gave up 12.2 points a game ranking third best in the nation. On the other hand, Alabama’s offense returns Heisman winner Mark Ingram along with seven other returning starters and sophomore sensation Trent Richardson who will be splitting carries with Ingram in 2010. Look for Alabama to control the clock and dominate this football game.

September 25 /Arkansas/ Fayetteville, AR

Why Arkansas Could Win: Arkansas returns 10 starters on an offense lead by Heisman hopeful Ryan Mallet. In Mallet’s first year in Bobby Petrino’s offense, the Michigan transfer lead the SEC in passing throwing for 732 more yards than the conference’s second leading passer Tim Tebow. Mallett was also fifth in the nation with 30 touchdowns and only threw seven interceptions in 403 attempts. The Hogs are tough to beat at home dropping only one game last season in Fayetteville, a 52-41 shootout loss to Georgia in the second week of the season.

Why Alabama Will Win: While Arkansas does return seven starters on defense, that may not necessarily be a good thing. The Razorbacks ranked 89th last season in total defense in Division one and ranked 99th in pass defense. While most teams will put eight men in the box this season to try and contain Alabama’s vaunted rushing attack, Arkansas likely will have to take its chances with the two best running backs in the SEC and leave an extra man back deep. In last season’s 35-7 blowout loss to the Crimson Tide, Bama QB Greg McElroy had arguably his best performance of the season. In the win, the first year signal caller completed 17 of 24 passes for 291 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Now, with 13 more games of experience under his belt, McElroy is more confident allowing Bama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain to not lean so much on the run game. I expect McElroy to have another big game as Bama wins a high scoring affair at Razorback Stadium.

October 2 /Florida/ Tuscaloosa, AL

Why Florida Could Win: The Gators may have lost Tim Tebow and many of his weapons in Brandon James, Aaron Hernandez, and Riley Cooper on offense but that doesn’t mean the Gators will have trouble scoring points. Florida returns four experienced offensive lineman who are all seniors to go along with a trio of backs who could rival any backfield in the nation in Jeff Demps, Emmanuel Moody, and Chris Rainey. Alabama returns just one player, Marcel Dareus, from the front seven that dropped Texas in Pasadena. While Tim Tebow will not be under center for the Gators, the player who broke his Florida high school record of 98 touchdown passes will be in redshirt junior John Brantley.

Why Alabama Will Win: In last season’s SEC Championship game, the Florida defense gave up 26 first downs, 490 yards of total offense, allowed Bama to convert on 73 percent of third downs, and were on the field for 40 minutes. What has changed since ’09? Little on Bama’s O and the best players on Florida’s D are now playing on Sundays. Joe Haden, Jermaine Cunningham, Brandon Spikes, and Major Wright are all in the NFL with their buddy Carlos Dunlap who missed the title game in Atlanta. Bama’s offense will be even harder to slow down in ’10 and while I think the Gators will be able to score some points, there’s no way the Florida defense has any chance of stopping the Bama offense. If Florida is to have any chance of defeating Alabama, they will have to wait for a third consecutive SEC title game matchup versus the Tide when the defense is a little more experienced.

October 9 /South Carolina/ Columbia, SC

Why South Carolina Could Win: The last three seasons the Gamecocks are 16-4 in games played prior to October 15th. After the middle of October South Carolina is a horrendous 4-14. The Gamecocks always play well at the beginning of the season and are a tough matchup whenever they are at the Cockpit. Luckily for Spurrier and his Gamecocks they get the number one ranked Crimson Tide early in the season and in Columbia. South Carolina will field a very experienced team in 2010 with nine starters returning on offense and eight on a defense that ranked 22nd in the nation in points against.

Why Alabama Will Win: While South Carolina does return eight starters on an above average defense, they lose the two players that made that defense special in DE Clifton Geathers and LB Eric Norwood. Last season, even with the two NFL guys on D, South Carolina allowed Mark Ingram to have his biggest game of the year as the sophomore carried the ball 24 times for 246 yards, an average of 10.3 yards a pop. Alabama will have the same game plan again this year and it will take eight or even nine men in the box for the ‘Cocks to stop Ingram and Trent Richardson. Bama beat the Gamecocks last season 20-6 despite one of their sloppiest performances of the season. Greg McElroy was held under 100 yards passing and had two picks to zero touchdowns. This was McElroy’s only SEC game in which he failed to throw for at least 120 yards and I don’t see South Carolina being able to contain the Bama passing game again this year, especially with what Ingram did to the defense last season.

—scf

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