Thu May 14 06:55pm EDT
Breaking down the preseason favorites.
Hide the women and children, and most of the men. Successful Tide teams in any era have always been built around defense, and on paper, this one can be as good as any of them -- even the venerated 1992 outfit that pitched three shutouts, held 10 of 13 opponents to 11 points or less and thoroughly dominated high-flying Miami in the anticlimactic 1 vs. 2 showdown in the Sugar Bowl. That's the model of a champion dancing in every dreaming Tider's head at night, and in fact, last year's defense wasn't far off the mark: 'Bama held seven opponents to 10 points or less, finished second in the nation against the run and led the SEC in total defense. Had it been able to withstand the Tebow Child with a 20-17 lead in the fourth quarter of the SEC Championship, that D might have gone on to the mythical championship game and down in pastel history with its sainted predecessors.
Utah took a big bite out of that aura in the site of the '92 team's greatest triumph, but on paper, at least, you can't draw up a better blueprint for an overwhelming, championship defense than what 'Bama welcomes back this fall: There are no less than 10 regulars back, including likely All-Americans Terrence Cody and Rolando McClain in the middle, and the top-ranked incoming class includes five-star/instant impact types in linebacker Nico Johnson and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick.
The returning lineup is not quite as athletic as that, or as, say, the fleet of NFL-bound punishers last year at USC (half of the Tide's front-liners were mere three-star recruits), but put it this way: In terms of production and experience, what most of the other high-profile championship contenders -- Florida, Texas, Oklahoma -- boast on offense, Alabama matches on defense, and then some.
All the ways you will disappoint us. There is the flipside to that effusive praise, which is, of course, they're going to need it. The offense has some top-end skill talent -- Julio Jones, notably, but also role players Mike McCoy and Mark Ingram and another incoming five-star, chiseled running back Trent Richardson -- but something like 99 percent of the offseason focus is and will continue to be on the new quarterback, Greg McElroy, a standard issue within-the-offense model whose main directive seems to be "Put it where only Julio can get it and do not screw this up."
Not that within-the-offense quarterbacks haven't triumphed before with some timely savvy and tremendous talent around them -- to return to the '92 analogy, nobody was ever blown away by Jay Barker's arm or athleticism -- and that's all any Alabama quarterback has ever been asked to be, even unusually hyped passers like Tyler Watts and Brodie Croyle. But, in connection with the emphasis on defense, Alabama offenses have never been much better than mediocre, either, which has cost them more than one title run over the years. McElroy figures to be just another guy in this role.
Note also that Jones has already undergone three separate surgeries since the end of the season, an ominous sign for a team that already figures to struggle against becoming one-dimensional. Unless Richardson is a revelation -- and I mean a Maurice Clarett/Adrian Peterson sort of revelation, which is possible with Richardson's hype, not a Mark Ingram sort of revelation where he's just a regular part of the rotation, which is probably a given -- it's hard to see how the offense is going to break out of its thoroughly middle-of-the-pack pedigree.
Stumbling blocks. There are three big hurdles -- Virginia Tech, Ole Miss and LSU -- at regular intervals over the first three months, and the usual trap games with the likes of Arkansas, Tennessee, South Carolina and Auburn, each of which can go in pretty much any direction, and all of which are capable of landing a fatal blow on the Tide's heel. The best thing that can happen is a reprisal of last year's Georgia Dome rout over Clemson when the Hokies come down to Atlanta for the opener, which would set the tone for another regular season run through the gauntlet.
Personally, I'd never put money on any team in the SEC running the table through the regular season -- it's happened twice in the last 10 years, and neither team won the national championship -- and certainly not two years in a row. But assuming 'Bama does make it through unscathed, or (more likely) with a chance at the mythical championship game despite a blemish, the towering, barbed-wire hurdle at the end is the same one that stopped last year's run cold: Florida in the SEC Championship. Nobody at this point seems willing to give the Tide the benefit of the doubt in a rematch.
Visions of champions past. The '92 precedent is obvious, and (obviously) duly noted. But in the BCS era, give me a tyrannical defense opposite an extremely limited junior quarterback, a powerful freshman workhorse and a seemingly insurmountable year-end opponent from the Sunshine State, and I'll give you 2002 Ohio State. (Saban's previous championship squad, 2003 LSU, also fits this mold pretty effectively, minus the opponent from the Sunshine State, and Matt Mauck was not quite as limited as Craig Krenzel.) It might be a little premature to compare Richardson to Maurice Clarett, but assuming the offense is predominantly of the grind-it-out variety, the freshman has to fit that mold. (As long as he doesn't fit that mold.)
Crystal ball says ... I'm much higher on this bunch at the end of writing this post than I was at the beginning; actually, I only decided to focus on Alabama instead of LSU (which I've been holding as a tentative SEC West favorite on sheer talent alone with its quarterback and defensive coordinator problems apparently addressed) because the polls so far have tended to favor the Tide. To some extent, that seems like inertia, preseason polls being notoriously backward-looking and so many key pieces -- a three-year starter at quarterback, an All-American and first-round pick at left tackle, a two-time All-SEC safety -- leaving the fold. And, frankly, the Tide just didn't look that good after routing Georgia on the last Saturday in September; against winning teams from that point, they scraped by Kentucky, Ole Miss and LSU (in overtime, despite an extreme outbreak of Jarrett Lee Disease by the Tigers' freshman quarterback) and fell by double-digits to Florida and Utah, fading late in the former and being caught flat-footed out of the gate by the latter. You know, even Mike Shula rode a tremendous defense to a 10-win season in 2005, and he was canned within a year.
If McElroy is even competent, though, this team should be very good -- the perceived void under center is the only obvious issue keeping it from getting far more attention at the top. Well, that, and the looming showdown with the Gators. There is no way it will be expected to beat Florida if it comes that in December, but I'm definitely more optimistic about 'Bama's chances of taking a low-scoring but thrilling route to that point. And if they get that far, with this defense, who knows what might happen?
out of five.
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Previous Contenders: Texas.