Preseason countdown: No. 1 Alabama

Preseason countdown: No. 1 Alabama

Published Aug. 29, 2011 1:00 a.m. ET

A great season from the Alabama football team won’t take away all the pain and misery Tuscaloosa suffered from the devastating tornado that killed so many.

But it’ll help.

Just like there was no way to take the Hurricane Katrina element out of any discussion of LSU football in 2005 – especially after the Tigers had to start out the season at Arizona State and had to shuffle the schedule – plenty of storylines will continue to revolve around how the Alabama football team is so intertwined with the community and how the tragedy has changed the area and the school and the city.

Will the team play harder now with a sense of duty to the fans and a city still trying to rebuild? Will there be more pressure because so many people are looking for something positive again to rally around? Will there be less hatred towards Auburn because of the way the entire state pulled together in a time of crisis?



The tornado and the inspirational stories that emerged in the aftermath of the crisis will make for easy pieces on the pregame shows, and of course the players and coaches will feel a sense of responsibility to not let anyone down after all the town has been through. However, it’s impossible for there to be any more pressure or any more focus on a football program than there is on Alabama, and it’s impossible for any team to be under the microscope even more. It’s the SEC: there’s pressure 24 hours a day, 365 days a year no matter what.

Once the ball is kicked off, 'Bama fans – hopefully – will be able to take their minds off of April 27, and opposing teams aren’t going to suddenly take it easy just because a big Tide season would make for a nice story. That’s sort of the point of sports being a distraction and a fun diversion, and this year’s Tide team should provide a whole bunch of joy to the beaten up community.

Last year’s team was defined by the epic collapse at home against Auburn, blowing a great start and a 24-7 first-half lead to lose 28-27 to the eventual national champion, with the loss looking even worse after the Tide flexed their muscles and showed what they could really do in the 49-7 whumping of Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl. Everything was in place to come up with a second straight run to a national title, but there were just enough missteps, just enough inconsistency, to ruin it.

The defense that was supposed to be a concern in a reloading year only gave up more than 20 points three times – and those turned out to be the team’s only three losses. This year, the D is fully stocked, but the offense is a concern. It’s a slight concern, though, and even with the lost stars, 'Bama is still full of players most teams would revolve their entire teams around.

It’s one thing to plug in new starters on defense, but it’s another to ask for a starting quarterback to step in cold and lead a team that could and should win the national title. However, there’s no need to shed any tears.

Oklahoma has great veterans, and Texas is loaded with underachieving five-star prospects, but no one has more talent at the immediate moment than Alabama. Not only is every position set with a superstar recruit, but the second-team would probably be ranked in the preseason top 25. Coach Nick Saban has brought the top-shelf players to Tuscaloosa, and the players fit the system to provide depth, options and versatility. Last year the loss of eight starters on defense was enough to be the difference between a great year and a national title season, but this season there’s no excuse unless the quarterback play stinks.

No one will run on the defense with bulk in the front three and with superior talent in the linebacking corps, while the secondary that was inconsistent last year is full of experienced NFL prospects; it should be the best in America. It’s going to take something special to score on a defense that allowed more than 13 points just four times and gave up a touchdown or less five times – and that was in a rebuilding year.

The offense isn’t going to be the dominant force it was two years ago, but the ground game should be terrific with Trent Richardson working behind a veteran line that gets four starters back. The passing attack might not be as explosive without Julio Jones, but Darius Hanks and Marquis Maze are good enough to balance out the attack and quarterbacks A.J. McCarron and Phillip Sims have more pure talent than Greg McElroy.

Without the off-the-field issues, Alabama would have been one of the favorites for the national title, but now, many will assume the team will be more focused and inspired during the tough times. Whether that’s right or not, the tragedy will be a part of the 2011 Crimson Tide season with the year likely to finish up in the Superdome on Jan. 9.

The tornado might have taken a lot of things from Alabama and Tuscaloosa, but the Tide keeps rolling on.

What to watch for on offense: The quarterback play. If a veteran like McElroy was under center, Alabama would be the no question, no doubt No. 1 team in America. Everything else is in place for a phenomenal season, but there are still doubts about whether or not McCarron and/or Sims can handle the workload and the pressure. They’re both bombers and they’re both premier passers, but they have to be efficient. McElroy might not have been Tom Brady, but the Tide passing game was the fifth most efficient in the nation. Handing it off to Richardson will only go so far; McCarron, the likely starter, will be tested early and he’ll have to stretch the field. Remember, though, that the big question in 2009 was whether or not McElroy could step in and shine in place of John Parker Wilson, and everything turned out fine.

What to watch for on defense: The tremendous back seven … or eight. Dont’a Hightower and C.J. Mosley are ultra-active, ultra-talented linebackers who should be all over the field and should crank out huge numbers as the cleaners for the run defense, while hybrid Courtney Upshaw is a dominant pass rusher who can work like an end or a fourth linebacker. The secondary is even more loaded with stars led by safety Mark Barron and corner Dre Kirkpatrick, who might be first-round draft picks next year and could each be the best in the nation at their respective positions. Safety Robert Lester led the team with eight picks, the corner combination of DeQuan Menzie and Dee Milliner will be fantastic on the other side of Kirkpatrick, and top safety recruit Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix could be the team’s most talented defensive back when he first walks on to the field.

The team will be far better if: It scores 30 points. Of course, most teams are going to win after putting up big numbers on the board, but considering Alabama’s defense, forget about it if the offense can get rolling. Bama lost to LSU in a 41-34 shootout in 2007. Since then, the team is 24-0 when scoring 30 or more. Since losing to South Carolina in a 37-36 firefight in 2001, Alabama is 50-2 when scoring 30 points or more. This year’s team should be good enough to put up points on a consistent basis and should be able to do more than enough to let the defense take care of the rest.

The schedule: Assuming Auburn isn’t the Auburn of last year, and hoping that Florida is still in a bit of a rebuilding mode, the slate isn’t all that bad. Going to Happy Valley to face Penn State is hardly fun, but Bama is the far better team and it should be heavily favored. In conference play, heading to Gainesville hurts, but the home layup against Vanderbilt and missing South Carolina and Georgia helps. A home game against Tennessee, the other battle against the East and that comes before a week off before the likely showdown for the West against LSU. November is a bear with the date with the Tigers to open, a sneaky-nasty trip to Mississippi State to follow, and then a week off against Georgia Southern before the Iron Bowl at Auburn. Last year it seemed like everyone had a week off before facing the Tide, and while Ole Miss and Vanderbilt getting an extra week to prepare isn’t a big deal, LSU gets an off week before going on the road to face the Tide.

Best offensive player: Junior RB Richardson. And now we get to see what he can do in a full-time role. The 5-foot-11, 224-pounder is freakishly strong, fast enough to be one of the nation’s top kickoff returners, and experienced enough to know what he’s doing after running for 1,451 yards and 14 scores and catching 39 passes for 392 yards and four touchdowns as the No. 2 man next to Mark Ingram over the last two seasons. Can Richardson be a workhorse? He might not have to be with talented backs Eddie Lacy and Dee Hart ready to work in a rotation, but Richardson will have to prove he can hold up after handling the ball in some way 20 times a game, every game.

Best defensive player: Junior LB Hightower. Safety Barron, corner Kirkpatrick, or linebacker Mosley could turn out to be the team’s best defensive player, but it’s Hightower who’s the tone-setter and the leader. After coming back from a knee injury that knocked him out in 2009, he was as good as new as the key replacement and leader in the linebacking corps for Rolando McClain, and now he could be the team’s signature star. A possible top-10 overall draft pick next year, he’s 6-4, 260-pounds, and can move. Able to play any linebacker spot at the next level, the spotlight will be on to see if he can play up to the Butkus-level hype.

Key player to a successful season: Besides quarterbacks, WR Maze. Already the team’s best kick and punt return option going into the season, the 5-10, 180-pound Maze has to grow into a bigger role at flanker while  Hanks has to do even more at split end. Maze might not be Jones, but he’s a dangerous deep threat who averaged 14.7 yards per catch, compared to Jones’ 14.5-yard average. He caught 30 fewer passes than Jones and was able to thrive with all the attention paid to No. 8, but now he has to show he can occasionally be the main man.

The season will be a success if: Alabama wins the national title. There are few places that can go into each and every season with a national title or bust attitude. USC and Ohio State used to be that way, but things have changed in a big hurry for those two powerhouses. LSU and Florida are usually in that mix, Texas is one of those schools in a good year, and Oklahoma is in the club, but no one has more talent than the Tide. One acceptable loss can be afforded early on, like at Florida, but that’s about it. There’s an open date before the showdown against LSU, and that’s really about it. Bama should be favored in every game.

Key game: Nov. 5 vs. LSU. Assuming Auburn needs a year or so to find the next Cam Newton and Nick Fairley, and assuming that Florida needs about a year or so for the new coaching staff to figure out what it’s doing, there no reason for the Tide to not be a mortal lock for double-digit wins. The difference between winning the SEC title and playing for it all, and going to the Sugar Bowl as the SEC’s No. 2 team, is the LSU showdown. It might not be a stretch to say that this might be the national championship.