Preseason countdown: No. 4 Alabama

Alabama is perfectly built for the new playoff format that starts in 2014.

After the Crimson Tide put on a defensive clinic in its 21-0 BCS Championship Game win over LSU, will anyone be all that happy if, say, a 12-0 Oklahoma or 13-0 Oregon is in this year’s BCS Championship Game and a one-loss Alabama isn’t?

The new playoff system was designed perfectly for the Tide to roll through, but this year it will have to try to get the job done the old-fashioned BCS way and it’ll have to fill a slew of holes to make it happen.

Yes, the Alabama defense put up a historic season, but that’s partly because it faced offenses that ranked 119th in the country (Kent State), 114th (Ole Miss), 105th (Florida), 104th (Tennessee), 100th (Auburn), 98th (Vanderbilt), 96th (North Texas), 95th (Penn State), 86th (LSU) and 84th (Mississippi State). Arkansas was the only BCS team on the slate with any teeth offensively, but it was Georgia Southern — its offense ranked 13th in the nation among FCS teams — that had the most success against Alabama with 302 rushing yards and 21 points with its quirky attack.

So how is Alabama going to handle actually having to play against real, live offenses such as those at Michigan, Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee (the passing game is going to rock) and Texas A&M? So why is this year’s team going to be as good or better without defensive superstars Dont’a Hightower, Mark Barron, Courtney Upshaw and Dre Kirkpatrick? How is the offense going to be stronger without Trent Richardson and with no Julio Jones-like receivers to work the passing game around?

The Tide might not be as good and it won’t put up the same statistics, but that might only mean it has a tougher time winning the national championship.

It’ll take an upset of massive proportions for anyone on the slate other than Michigan, LSU or Arkansas to beat the ‘Bama if everything is humming right. Yes, the defense might have lost several key parts of a national title puzzle, but that just means other superstar prospects will get their chances to show what they can do. No one will have any chance of moving around Jesse Williams and the defensive front three, while no one will have a chance — watch out, Michigan — of outrunning a dynamite linebacking corps loaded with next-level talent.

The offense might not have any sure-thing receivers to count on and doesn’t have a household name at running back, but the backfield goes five deep with runners ready to explode behind an offensive line that boasts at least four future NFL starters. Orchestrating it all is AJ McCarron, a national-champion quarterback who’s accurate, keeps the mistakes to a minimum and can be the type of leader who can make everyone around him better.

Possibly bringing it all together is an attitude that’s hard to come up with coming off a title. Alabama might be one of the favorites to win the national title, but it might be able to use the “nobody respects us” motivational ploy, even though everyone has nothing but respect for what the team might be capable of.

Will Alabama win a third national championship in four years? Maybe, and it’s possible it can win the SEC championship along the way, too.

What to watch for on offense: The dominance of the offensive line. Football isn’t that tough a game if your guys up front are better than their guys up front. Thanks to the return of Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones for one more year, the line is loaded with phenomenal veterans and one young blocker who could be the best of them all. If Cyrus Kouandijo is fine after injuring a knee last season, then he’ll stick at left tackle to allow Jones to stay at center, where he practiced all offseason. D.J. Fluker is a future NFL right tackle or guard, Chance Warmack is a next-level blocker at left guard, and Anthony Steen is a pile-mover at right guard. The depth might be lacking a bit, but as long as the starting five are healthy, the bevy of speedy backs should be able to make up for the loss of Trent Richardson and McCarron should have time to make his questionable receiving corps look better than it probably is.

What to watch for on defense: The speedy emergence of the new stars in the linebacking corps. It’s an easy equation for the Alabama defense. Find three strong blocks of granite to hold down the line, find four lightning-fast athletes who can swarm around the ball in the secondary and then get four of the most aggressive and instinctive linebackers possible to make all the key plays. There’s a leadership hole with the loss of Courtney Upshaw and Dont’a Hightower, but it’s possible the ‘Bama defense is even faster and more athletic without them. Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley are smart veterans who can hold down the middle, but the real star of the show could be sophomore Adrian Hubbard, a tweener with high-end pass rushing skills and burst. Xzavier Dickson is another hybrid who can be used as a defensive end or an outside linebacker. The developed linebacker depth might be lacking a bit, but the starting four will turn out to be as good as any in America.

The team will be far better if: The defense gives up fewer than 28 points. Last year, the “team will be far better if” section set the bar at scoring 30 points, winning 24 straight and going 28-1 under Nick Saban when hitting that mark. With a defense that didn’t allow more than 14 points to any FBS team — giving up 21 to Georgia Southern — the offense didn’t have to do nearly as much. Now, under Saban, the Tide is a staggering 38-1 — with the only loss a 41-34 shootout to LSU in 2007 — when scoring 28 points or more. In the 66-game Saban era his defenses have allowed 28 points or more seven times accounting for five of the 11 losses and going zero for its last four when giving up that many. The most recent time the Tide gave up 28 or more and won was a 41-30 victory over Georgia in early 2008.

The schedule: There’s nothing like a big test right out of the box for the defending national champions. The Tide will know by the end of the day on Sept. 15 whether they’re going to be in the hunt for the BCS Championship Game with Michigan to open things up in Jerry World in Arlington and the SEC opener at Arkansas. Fortunately there are enough down weeks to prepare for the big showdowns; this might be ‘Bama’s easiest schedule over the past few years. Yes, there’s a brutal midsection that would ruin most teams with three trips in four weeks, but Alabama isn’t most teams. It has to go to Missouri, Tennessee, and LSU, with a home date against Mississippi State thrown in the equation, but there’s a week off to prepare for the tough month. What comes after the run? Texas A&M. Western Carolina coming the week before dealing with Auburn is a nice break.

Best offensive player: Jones, the senior center. This isn’t quite true. While Jones might have won the Outland last year and was everyone’s All-American at left tackle, and while he might be a sure-thing NFL first-round selection next season, depending on the scout and the practice, there’s a thought that sophomore Cyrus Kouandijo will be the better player. And if he’s not better than Jones, at the next level tackle D.J. Fluker might be more of a sure thing and guard Chance Warmack will probably get a fat paycheck for more than a decade. But it’s Jones who’s the consummate leader and top collegiate blocker for the uber-talented line, and now he’s the quarterback up front who’ll combine with McCarron to sniff out any hole in the defense and just about any and every blitz.

Best defensive player: Senior nose tackle Jesse Williams. The former junior-college transfer stepped in right away and started every game up front. While he was often used like a massive end, the 6-4, 319-pounder is a built run stopper for the nose, where he should clog everything up on the inside. He made 24 tackles with four tackles for loss, but stats aren’t the true measure of how good the Alabama defensive linemen are. Williams can occupy two blockers without a problem and he never gets moved off his base.

Key player to a successful season: Senior kicker Jeremy Shelley. A healthy tailback or three will emerge from the five-man pack to be the new Tide star — it’ll probably be Eddie Lacy — and the receiving corps will be serviceable even if there isn’t a No. 1 guy to make defensive coordinators worry. Everything on both sides of the ball will turn out to be fine, but at some point Shelley might have to nail a key kick to win a game to save the SEC/national title dreams. Last season he and Cade Foster combined to miss four field goals in the first game against LSU, but to be fair, they were bombs missing from 44, 50, 49 and 52 yards away. While Shelley made amends in the BCS championship, making five field goals, one was blocked and he missed another.

The season will be a success if: Alabama wins the national championship. The schedule might be tougher, there might be some big personnel turnover and the season is one big hit on McCarron from finishing up in the Capital One Bowl, but at this point it’s BCS Championship Game or bust. Winning the SEC title isn’t nearly enough for this program. Ask LSU how the 2011 SEC championship T-shirts fit.

Key game: Sept. 15 at Arkansas. Of course the No. 3 date at LSU is college football’s game of the year, and of course the Auburn game means just about everything, but those two games might not matter much if the Tide can’t get past Michigan in the opener and the trip to Arkansas to kick off the SEC season. The Alabama defense should be too fast for the Michigan offense and shouldn’t have too many problems, but Arkansas is a different sort of threat with a strong offensive balance and a frenzied crowd desperate for their team to take the lead role in the SEC title chase. Alabama has gone 5-0 against Arkansas under Saban, and this year his team has to set the tone right away.