Alabama's returning Eddie Lacy in last season's Capital One Bowl win over Michigan State
The USA Today Coaches Preseason Poll has the Alabama Crimson Tide starting out the season in the No. 2 spot, generous this far out from the start of the season, and also fraught with responsibility.
Once there, pressure abounds to stay at least inside the top five. But anything can happen. Auburn wasn’t even in the top 25 last year and you know what happened there.
However, the Tide have some very solid reasons for being where they are, with almost a silent, unspoken confidence that emanates from their leader, Head Coach Nick Saban.
Take a look at some of the reasons the Tide should feel good about the season, what they have and where they’re going with it.
Expect Nick Saban to be at High Tide in 2011
You really need to read my previous article in BR about his process for resurrecting the Tide to get a thorough understanding of what I’m talking about. But, basically, Nick Saban is consistent in his message to the players. He hates to lose and he translates that in terms of motivation.
They love to win for him, as well as themselves. The fans are just the recipients of all that is Crimson Tide football.
Coming out of 2010 with two losses to non-Auburn SEC opponents and the dismal let down to Auburn in the Iron Bowl, and this becomes Saban’s high tide year. Expect an intense, but subtle, confidence from the Tide week after week.
The Tide's schedule is more to their advantage this year
Its not that the schedule is easier, but in 2010 some of Alabama’s toughest opponents were on the road. Two of which were at South Carolina and LSU—both losses.
This year some, but not all, tough opponents are at home, including Arkansas, LSU and by all accounts what appears to be an improved Tennessee. This is a rivalry that a lot of people outside the Alabama circle have dismissed because of the Vols lackluster performance of the past few years. But believe me, the Tide faithful haven’t forgotten and are probably thankful that this year it's at Bryant-Denny.
There are some unknowns on the road such as Penn State, Mississippi State and, of course, Auburn.
You throw out the records where the Tigers are concerned, and I’ll bet Nick Saban and the players will be all about avenging last year.
Also, Mississippi State—improved considerably under Dan Mullen—has proven to be a spoiler to Bama in the past, especially at the 10th game of the season. However, the schedule overall should be to the Tide's advantage.
Mark Barron will lead a stellar secondary for the Crimson Tide this year
The Tide’s defensive roster was not hurt quite so deeply by exiting players as the offense. There are starters returning from what was already a great defense.
Marcell Dareus’ exit will leave a hole in the line for sure. But there was a lot of depth before from a defense that finished last year fifth in the country in yards allowed, although they still need to improve on their pass rush.
Dont’a Hightower, one of the best linebackers in the country along with C.J. Mosely, make up a seasoned and tenacious line-backing core, with Courtney Upshaw in a hybrid role between DE and outside linebacker. They’re fast, seasoned and the position is deep in backup talent, too.
But the group to watch is Bama’s secondary. Mark Barron had 76 tackles in their championship season of 2009, 75 last year and as a seasoned senior is a major threat. Dre Kirkpatrick will be a great compliment to Barron as well as Robert Lester, both juniors.
The NFL is written in the future for several guys out of this group.
A.J. McCarron got some playing time, but has some competition from redshirt freshman Phillip Sims
All eyes will be on the Alabama offense in 2011. Mark Ingram, Julio Jones, Greg McElroy and James Carpenter are in the NFL, stalwarts of the last two seasons, including the 2009 National Championship.
But the O-line is back and intact, with the exception of Carpenter. At quarterback, a healthy duel is going on between A.J. McCarron and redshirt freshman Phillip Sims. Both can throw...and run a little.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see a two quarterback system from Saban early on, but that’s just a guess. Then you have an all-purpose player in redshirt freshman Blake Sims, a quarterback in high school. He does a lot and could see duty returning kicks, at slot receiver or in the Wildcat.
Replacing Julio Jones at receiver might seem a tough proposition, but remember Jones was banged up a bit—and I do remember a video montage of dropped passes at the NFL draft. Bring on senior Marquis Maze to pick it up, plus Darius Hanks, Michael Bowman and potentially Duron Carter from Ohio State, son of legendary NFL receiver Chris Carter. There's also a host of other solid receivers waiting in the wings.
Last year at running back Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson traded off the duties, but this year Richardson is on his own. He had an incredible A-Day game, his attitude seems right and the Heisman people have taken notice. He’s got talent behind him as well, with Eddie Lacy and Jalston Fowler.
The bottom line here is that if the quarterbacks can get their throwing game together, the running game will have no problem. Otherwise the whole focus for opponents' defense will be Trent Richardson.
Nick Saban's 5th year of recruiting
Going into his fifth season, this is Nick Saban's team. He recruited them and he has to live with them. For the Crimson Tide, that’s a very good thing. Winning a National Championship in 2009 and having a pretty good season last year doesn’t hurt, but then Alabama has always been a big draw for the high school football elite.
But Saban knows what he wants, needs and how to build it. He has back-filled where needed in critical roles, gaining the top high school recruits and taking advantage of the now-popular practice of signing the transfers, junior college or otherwise.
Duron Carter is a great example, as long as things work out there. Lest we forget where Cam Newton came from and he took Auburn to a National Championship.
Saban is no dummy. Talent is as talent does, but he gets the best out of them. With major stars like Ingram, Jones and McElroy gone, just as talented players are coming through the front door as they go out the back. This year is a good case in point. Be prepared for the Tide to be well positioned for 2012, too.
Changes occur within even the best coaching staffs. Actually, its usually the best ones, as coaches ascend the ladder toward head coach. But the Crimson Tide program starts the 2011 season with minuscule turnover, only losing three key roles from 2010.
Mike Groh takes over the receivers, Jeff Stoutland takes on the offensive line position and Chris Rumph tackles the defensive line.
The critical Offensive and Defensive Coordinator positions stay with Jim McElwain and Kirby Smart, respectively. They started with Saban and both know what they need to do to bring home the championship, having been there for the 2009 undefeated season.
So, sticking to that consistent formula for victory, Saban's coaching staff should be solid and experienced enough to keep Saban’s vision alive, while imbuing just enough invigorating new blood in areas where it's actually needed.
Hunger for the crystal is a good motivator
This is one of those intangibles. I hate to beat that word to death, but it is critical when it comes to the game of football, more so than any other sport, I believe.
The desire to win is subtext to any great, winning football season, and something you can feel when playing or coaching the game. Of course the fans get some of that love too, which only fuels a team’s momentum.
Nothing is greater, especially for the Alabama Crimson Tide, then when you’re following a year with three regular season losses, especially an embarrassing drubbing by the Auburn Tigers.
As I’ve said before, the 2008 season ended in a similar way and in 2009, the Tide had the hunger that took them to an undefeated season and a National Title.
Obviously, Saban is well aware of this and you can believe that he’ll use it, probably above all others, to drive his team to vie for yet another BCS National Title.