Alabama Football Post-Spring Preview: The Good, the Bad and the Unknown
The 2011 A-Day game has passed and it was a great success, as 92,310 people showed up not only for the spring game but also for the highly anticipated unveiling of the Nick Saban statue.
Nothing that happened on the field, unless there had been a major injury, was going to steal from the excitement of that afternoon. Not only was the unveiling of the statue a success but the game was as well.
There are still plenty of questions that have to be answered before the season starts. However, there were plenty of reasons to be excited. Now comes the most dreaded time in a college football fan's year: the summer.
No matter what team you cheer for, you are just holding your breath hoping no one gets in trouble and no one gets injured.
This, however, is one of my favorite times of the year. Over the next two weeks, I will be releasing my post-spring, pre-fall team previews. During this time, I will post articles on Bleacher Report for all 12 SEC teams.
I also will have a corresponding radio program you can listen to live online. You will be able to call the live show with any questions, comments or disagreements. In each of these reports, I will release the good, the bad and the unknown for each team.
Once fall practice starts, I will be attending at least one practice for each of the 12 teams. At that time, I will release a final preseason analysis and projected rankings.
Good News No. 1: The Schedule Sets Up for a Big Season
When I am putting together season projections, I rate each game on the team schedule. Different factors come into the equation and I end up with a percentage that predicts the likely outcome of the game. In essence, a game in the range of 45-55 is a toss-up. The lower the number, the less likely your team is to lose to the opposing team.
According to my formula, Alabama has six games that they could not lose on their worst day. Those six games are Kent State, North Texas, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Tennessee and Georgia Southern.
They have two games they could lose—Penn State and Florida—but chances are strong they will win (55-65 percent certainty). Then, there are three games that are toss-ups: Auburn, Arkansas and LSU.
Of those three games, two are at home (LSU, Arkansas) where Alabama has won 20 of their last 21 games. While I do see Alabama losing one of the toss-up games and being upset in one of the unlikely games, it would not be a shock if they ran the table.
Good News No. 2: The Running Game Is in Good Hands
How many teams in the history of college football can say that they lost a Heisman Trophy running back and yet will be better in the running game? This will be the case in Alabama.
Prior to this spring, I believed that if there was any drop-off from Mark Ingram to Trent Richardson it wold be minimal. In fact, there is a great chance that Richardson as a starter will be more productive than Ingram was as a starter.
Despite this, I also knew that Richardson and Ingram were better than just Richardson alone. However, after watching Eddie Lacy play, I have come to another conclusion: The sum of Richardson and Lacy is greater than the 2010 version of Ingram and Richardson. This is because Richardson will be a year older and more mature and Ingram was slowed down with injury last season.
Last season, the dynamic duo only combined for 1575 rushing yards. That was 834 yards less than they combined for in 2009. While teams did scheme better against them, injuries were the main reason for the drop-off. If Lacy and Richardson stay healthy, they are certain to surpass last season's numbers.
Good News No. 3: The Linebacker Corps Will Be the Best in the Nation
Make no mistake about it: The 2011 Alabama linebacker units will go down as one of the best in Crimson Tide history. Jerrell Harris, Courtney Upshaw, Dont'a Hightower and Nico Johnson have mastered the "three Fs" of defense: They are fast, they are furious and they are fundamental.
In other words, they hit their spots quickly, they bring the lumber at the point of contact and they wrap up and bring the offensive player down to the ground.
This linebacker group will be able to cover up the few flaws that might be found in this defensive unit.
Bad News No. 1: There Will Be an Increase in Turnovers
One of the few dim spots in the 2011 A-Day game was the amount of turnovers by the offense. The offense turned the ball over six times during that game. They will not turn it over that much during the season but with new a quarterback and a new second-string running back, the turnover number will increase.
The bright spot is that the defense is likely to keep the offense out of the end zone after the turnover. It is not going to be the number of turnovers that will decide this season as much as it is where the turnover takes place. They must be careful not to put their defense in too many compromising situations.
The key to a successful Nick Saban-coached football team is field position. He wants to keep pinning the offense back until they make a crucial mistake.
Bad News No. 2: The Rushing Yards Will Be Tougher To Come by
This might seem contradictory to point No. 2 of positive things for the 2011 season. However, that is not the case. The reason yards will be tougher to come by is because of the Julio factor. Julio was talented enough that he commanded a double-team when he was playing well. That kept an extra man out of the box.
I love Marquis Maze. However, he is five inches shorter and 40 lbs lighter than Julio Jones and will not be as intimidating to opposing defenses. Because of this, there will be one extra man in the box trying to stop the run.
The other part of the Julio factor is that he was a great blocker. So much so, that it was like having another TE blocking on the edge. Not having him leading on the edge will be noticeable.
This Alabama running game will surpass last season's numbers . However, they will need more carries to do it. This in itself is not a bad thing. This fits into Saban's game plan but it does leave them more susceptible to the next slide.
The Bad No. 3: Alabama Is One Injury Away from Disaster
Alabama has a roster full of 4 and 5-star athletes. However, much of that talent is unproven. While there are certain places that the Tide could easily rebound from an injury, there are others that they cannot.
For example, if Trent Richardson goes down, the offense is shot. Lacey is likely not ready to be the 1A back and Dee Hart is clearly not ready to be the 1B back.
Though he scampered for a 17-yard run toward the end of the spring game, he only rushed for a total of 17 total yards. Meaning, outside of that run he had zero yards. Remember, this was without much defensive pressure and blitzing.
He has a bright future but he is not ready for 100-plus carries.
The Unknown No. 1: How Will the Defensive Line Progress?
The defensive line will determine if this defense will be very good or great. Not only must they replace Marcell Dareus but they must also improve the pass rush.
The battle I am most looking forward to watching is that of Josh Chapman and Jesse Williams. It seems that Chapman won the battle in the spring. However, if Jesse Williams progresses the way many think that he will, this defense could be 1992/2009-good.
The most important position in the 3-4 defense is the NT. Chapman, while he played well, is not that gap-filler they need. They need a DT who will command a constant double-team. This will then free up those blitzing linebackers and safeties.
In my opinion, last season, the defensive backs took the bulk of the criticism when the reality is that the quarterbacks had way too much time to throw the ball. Because of the lack of line penetration and because of the youthful secondary, Alabama was reluctant to blitz as much as they had in the past.
If this line progresses, the pressure will lighten off of the offense. Alabama will be able to win ball games 14-10 if needed.
The Unknown No. 2: The Quarterback Position
You knew that it would come up at some point in this discussion.
The biggest question in my mind is not who will win the quarterback position between A.J. McCarron and Phillip Simms. In my opinion, it is irrelevant. The success of this team will not be based on the talent of the quarterback.
In my mind, the biggest question is how big will the drop-off be from Greg McElroy to the new quarterback this season? I know the McElroy critics will point to how these quarterbacks are both more talented than McElroy.
The problem with this theory is that the new quarterback will not have a four-to-one touchdown/interception ratio this season. The new quarterback will also not have a 70 percent completion rate.
I see nothing in Saban's coaching track record that leads me to believe he is going to allow these quarterbacks to sit back and sling the football around the field. They are going to be called upon to manage the game—not win the game. With that said, Greg McElroy was the perfect game manager.
If the Alabama quarterback—whoever he is—does not turn the ball over at a high rate and makes the medium-to-short passes, this Alabama team will roll.
The Unknown No. 3: Special Teams
Last season, I predicted that Alabama would lose two regular season games. In my mind, the LSU and South Carolina games were locks and Alabama would have had to have perfect games to win.
The reason I had them losing two games is not because they were not the overall best team. I chose them to lose because I felt the special teams would not be anywhere near as effective as the 2009 team.
Special teams is crucial for a Nick Saban-coached team. He is the king of field position. As long as his offense can get a first down or two every possession, he likes his chances. Because his defenses are going to be stellar and he believes he can beat you in the special teams game.
This season will be no different. The special teams units will need to take their game to the next level if Alabama wants to be a legitimate national championship contender. They will need to convert their field goals at a high percentage and they will need to consistently place their punts inside the 20.
With that said, I think it is crucial that they remove Trent Richardson from any return teams—the risk is too great for injury—and replace him with freshman running back Dee Hart. As I stated prior, I do not think Hart is ready for the every-game burden of running the football in the SEC. However, he is a playmaker and if you can get him into space, he is an instant home-run threat.
He could be this year's version of Javier Arenas. Well not that good; Arenas is the best return man I have ever seen in the SEC. However, he can be the difference-maker they need.
This season is going to be hard to judge for the University of Alabama. As of now, I have them finishing at 11-3. However, if the right players progress properly, they could end up 14-0.
Regardless of their final record, I hope this team plays to a level that will lift up their city and give them temporary relief from the stress of these past storms—much like the Saints were able to do for the city of New Orleans.
The talent is there, but how quickly they progress will be the deciding factor.
Do you agree? Disagree? Remember to join us this Saturday at 2PM CST and discuss it with is on Blog Talk Radio and Nationwide Sports Radio.