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History suggests Alabama won't repeat
Alabama, and particularly Nick Saban, let’s make this easier for you. Let’s take the pressure off that crushed last year’s tremendously talented Florida team and got to far better teams than this year’s Tide squad. Let’s take away all the big expectations, all the hype, and all the stress.
Alabama, you’re not going to win the 2010 national championship.
There, the pressure’s off. Go out and play up to your immense talent level and let the chips fall where they may.
The defense has to replace almost everyone and the special teams are starting from scratch, but there’s a who’s who of four and five-star prospects ready to show what they can do, and if anything, this year’s team might be more talented than the 2009 version. The team doesn’t lack for skill, the coaching is top-shelf, and the schedule is conducive to winning a national title.
But it’s not like this year’s Tide has everything in place. Yeah, there will be a transition on defense with nine new starters needing to go from potentially great to productive, while entrusting the kicking game to (most likely) two true freshmen at placekicker and punter is a scary proposition, no matter how good they are.
The distractions kicked in this summer, starting with the Marcell Dareus controversy involving allegations of a the defensive end attending a South Beach party thrown by an agent, followed up by Saban’s stump speech and unfortunate “pimp” comment. And that’s the problem. There are enough problems for this year’s Tide team without having more diversions to deal with. Reloading will be hard enough, especially against a schedule with six opponents getting a week off before facing the defending national champions.
Since Nebraska won back-to-back national titles in the mid-1990s, Alabama has the most question marks of any No. 1 team in the last 15 years, and it’s by far the shakiest of the defending national champions with an honest shot of repeating. Not that any of this matters to Saban, and in fact, the drama and the rebuilding probably helps his cause.
Saban might not exactly be Mr. Chuckles, and he might make winning a national title about as much fun as getting a voice mail from Mel Gibson, but his single-minded, no-nonsense, zero-fun-sir, business-like approach works. But now he’ll have to do something different, and now he’ll have to summon up all his motivational tricks and ploys to try to buck recent BCS era history.
Outside of 2004 USC and 1999 Florida State, teams simply don’t walk into the season on top of the preseason mountain and come up with the crystal ball unless they’re totally and completely loaded. The ’04 Trojans and ’99 Seminoles came into their respective seasons with almost no major flaws. But just about every other national champion since the mid-1990s Huskers teams either weren’t the story of that year (2006 Florida), back-doored into a title (1996 Florida and 2007 LSU), were part of a debate that could have gone either way (2003 LSU vs. 2003 USC and 1997 Michigan vs. 1997 Nebraska), and/or pulled off all-time stunners (2002 Ohio State and 2005 Texas). So if BCS era history has taught us anything, considering all the replacements needed on Bama’s defense and special teams, you take the field in the national title prognostications.
Making things that much historically harder for Tide is the way defending national champions have struggled over the last decade and a half just to get back to the show. Only three teams (BCS champions only, 2003 USC fans) have even gotten to the national title game the year after winning it all (2000 Florida State, 2002 Miami, and 2005 USC), but they all lost, and unlike this Alabama team, they were all loaded with veterans.
The results have been even worse for recent defending national champions from the SEC. Florida had the best defending national champion of the bunch last year and got steamrolled in the SEC championship. 2008 LSU fell off the map going 8-5, 2007 Florida went 9-4, and Saban’s 2004 LSU team went 9-3. To take it even a step further, 2005 Auburn, the year after it was national title-worthy, went 9-3, 1999 Tennessee went 9-3, 1997 Florida went 10-2, and 1993 Alabama went 9-3-1.
Of course, it’s not like Saban cares a lick about any of that, and the ability to show that history isn’t on his team’s side might just provide the little extra motivation needed to give his team a boost, since this team knows all about breaking trends Alabama players don’t win the Heisman, but Ingram changed that. Tim Tebow doesn’t lose big games, but last year’s Tide team disproved that myth. There isn’t a killer, sure-thing superstar team in college football this year, and even though 'Bama might have its concerns, this is still a tremendously talented team that has all the ability and all the skill to repeat.
What to watch for on offense: A bit more from the passing game. While it’s not like Alabama will be turning into Hawaii, there will be more balance thanks to a loaded receiving corps and the experience of QB Greg McElroy. The bread will still be buttered with Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, and a punishing and explosive ground game, but the passing attack should average more than 200 yards per game mainly because the veteran targets, as well as the backs, should do even more cranking out yards after the catch. The veteran receivers are all great downfield blockers, while McElroy should do a better job of taking advantage of the mismatches.
What to watch for on defense: Not that much of a drop-off. This isn’t going to be the nation’s second-best defense again, but it’s not going to be all that far off. Rolando McClain came up with a huge year at middle linebacker, the secondary was drum-tight, and Terrence Cody was the definition of an anchor in the middle, but it’s a group effort for the Alabama defense. It seemed like someone different was making a big play at a key moment, and it should be more of the same this year with more speed, athleticism, and upside than anyone in America. There might not be that much experience returning, but the D is loaded with four and five-star talents with prototype skills and NFL money on the horizon.
The team will be far better if... the special teams are tighter. It’s not like 'Bama played a ton of close games last year, but it needed four Leigh Tiffin field goals and a huge blocked kick from Cody to beat Tennessee. This year, there should be a few more tight ones and the kicking game needs to be solid. That could be a problem with true freshmen Cade Foster handling the placekicking and Jay Williams taking over the punting duties. Throw in that teams were 3-for-3 on converting onside attempts, averaged 25.1 yards per kickoff return, and 9.2 yards per punt return, and there’s work to be done.
The schedule: The Tide should be good enough to get through the schedule unscathed and play for a second straight national title if it can hold serve at home. There are plenty of landmines that might appear to be off the radar a bit, like a road trip to Arkansas before the showdown against Florida and a trip to South Carolina following the Gator game. The games against the East are nasty, going on the road to deal with South Carolina and Tennessee to go along with the Florida game, and the West isn't a peach, either. There's a big break getting the final three games at home, and getting Ole Miss and Auburn at home is a bonus, but the Arkansas battle will be a shootout, while the biggest bad boy of the division bunch, LSU, is in Death Valley. Throw in a non-conference game against Penn State, and this is one interesting schedule for the defending champs to deal with.
Best offensive player: Junior RB Mark Ingram. The Heisman winner won the big prize, as well as the national title, by carrying the offense through almost every big game and every big moment, and he did it as a receiver as well as a runner. There might be many who believe that Stanford’s Toby Gerhart deserved the Heisman, and Fresno State’s Ryan Mathews might have had a more explosive year, but no back was Ingram when the lights were brightest. Remember, his Heisman campaign was considered dead and buried after running for just 30 yards on 16 carries against Auburn, and then came the SEC title game running for 113 yards and three scores, and catching two passes for 76 yards, against Florida. He can do it all with quickness, power, and clutch ability.
Best defensive player: Junior S Mark Barron. He was overshadowed a bit by all the other great talents in the Alabama secondary, but he was the one who always seemed to come up with all the big plays finishing second on the team with 76 tackles with seven interceptions and 11 broken up passes. The secondary might be even more talented with phenomenal slew of young prospects about to shine, and Barron will be the steady leader of the pack.
Key player to a successful season: Junior NT Josh Chapman. Even with all the drama surrounding Marcell Dareus and the loss of six of the front seven’s top players, the defensive front should be just fine as long as the middle is solidified. 6-4, 319-pound Kerry Murphy is a good-looking run stuffer, but it’s the 6-1, 310-pound fireplug, Chapman, who has the talent and the experience to be the anchor the defensive front can work around. It’ll be hard to run on the Bama defense no matter who’s on the nose, but the D can go from great to national title good if Chapman holds his own on a consistent basis.
The season will be a success if... Alabama wins the SEC championship. Yeah, anything less than an appearance in the BCS Championship will be a disappointment for the defending national champion, but to get there the Tide has to take care of its conference business first. With so much turnover and with everyone gunning at a higher level to knock the king off the mountain, winning a second straight SEC title will be a fantastic accomplishment. If it can be done with no more than one loss, it’ll be tough to keep the Tide out of Glendale.
Key game: Sept. 25 at Arkansas. The Penn State game on Sept. 11 could be the non-conference game of the season, the battle with Florida will be the most hyped conference game of the year, and the Auburn game is, well, the Auburn game. But all three of those showdowns are at home. The LSU game on Nov. 6 will determine the SEC West title in some way, shape, or form, but the Tide will get two weeks off to prepare. The Arkansas game is going to be the big early test to see if the reloaded defense is up to national title snuff as it deals with Ryan Mallett and the explosive Hog attack on the road. If Bama wins in a walk, and if the defense is up to the challenge, then it might be uh-oh time for the rest of the SEC.
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