Alabama has a better chance to win the college football national championship this season than it will have again for the foreseeable future.
While that fact provides plenty of reason for Tide fans to be excited about September, it is a decidedly mixed blessing, because Alabama’s window of opportunity may be about to close.
On the positive side, Alabama will enter this season with a lot in its favor.
Eight of 11 starters return on what should be an incredible defense. If one were to name the top 20 current defensive players in the SEC, at least 10 would play for Alabama. Mark Barron, Robert Lester, Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw would have all been drafted in the top three rounds of the NFL Draft had they entered last year.
Instead, they will wreak havoc on opposing offenses in the SEC, along with a solid and deep group of cohorts.
Make no mistake, Alabama’s defense is stacked.
Alabama’s offense may not be too much worse. Four of the five starters on the offensive line are returning, including three preseason all-SEC players. Trent Richardson is one of the best five running backs in America, and the wide receivers are solid. While the quarterback spot remains a question mark, with all the talent on offense assembled around him, whoever wins the job probably won’t be asked to do too much heavy lifting.
Things set up well for Alabama this year. The schedule is kind, at least by SEC standards, with LSU and Arkansas both coming to Tuscaloosa. South Carolina rotates off the schedule in favor of Vanderbilt. And Alabama should have a whole lot of motivation after a disappointing 2010 season, in which the team never lived up to its potential.
The good news is that there is a long list of reasons why Alabama could win the national title this year. The bad news is that after this season, the same may not be true for quite some time.
Unfortunately, the downside of having a starting lineup full of NFL caliber defensive players, as Alabama does this year, is that in 2012 most of them will actually be in the NFL. Thus, the 2012 defense will likely be an inexperienced group that makes critical mistakes resembling those of last year’s squad. As in 2010, Alabama will probably lose some games because of it.
Offensively, the Tide will return an experienced quarterback in 2012, but it will lose its only two proven, productive receivers after this season, Darius Hanks and Marquis Maze, and there is no proven replacement for either in sight.
At running back, Trent Richardson will likely be NFL bound after this year, and backup Eddie Lacy is solid, but unlike Richardson, appears mortal. Incoming freshman Dee Hart looks like a playmaker, but may be too small to carry the load as an every down back, and like Dont’a Hightower last season, may not be fully recovered from his season-ending knee surgery his first year back.
The offensive line will have talent, but Alabama will feel the loss of all-SEC lineman William Vlachos and junior Barrett Jones, who has hinted this season may be his last as well.
Add up all these omissions, and Alabama will probably not be as good in 2012 as it is this season.
While it is too early to make definitive predictions for 2013, the prospect for a truly elite team that season do not look promising either. The list impact freshman on last year’s squad who looked like definite stars in two years is limited to C.J. Mosely and D.J. Fluker, and as a redshirt freshman, Fluker himself will be draft eligible after this season.
Combined with the rampant transfers this offseason of underclassmen stuck at the bottom of the Tide’s depth chart, the forecast for a 2013 national title looks daunting.
Of course, one thing in Alabama’s favor is Nick Saban. Alabama will always be good as long as he is running things.
Saban always recruits well, so there is a chance he could load up next year’s signing class with a horde of instant-impact recruits who could significantly brighten the team’s outlook.
But historically, Saban is facing an uphill climb. Since the year 2000, only one team, Texas, has won a national title with a coach who had been in place more than four years.
While Saban seems a good bet to break this trend based on his consistently excellent recruiting, there is a paradoxical downside of landing too many great players.
Many of these classes never attain their promise because many uber-talented players are not interested in sitting behind an equally talented, but more experienced, upperclassmen for three years and end up transferring or losing their focus. At some point, every hotshot incoming freshman equates to the loss of a more experienced older player who would have probably sooner contributed to the program.
This is part of the reason why it is so hard to maintain that top level of success beyond one full four-to-five year cycle of new recruits
Of course, if any coach can overcome historical odds, it would be Saban, the only active college head coach with two national titles to his credit. But if Saban is going to buck that historical trend, it sure looks like 2011, his fifth season, is going to provide his best opportunity.
Alabama will be good as long as he is around, but on paper, 2011 looks like its best chance in the next few years to be elite.