Why Alabama, not Oklahoma, should be preseason No. 1
The Tide don't fit the traditional mold of a preseason No. 1, but they're loaded
Defense is full of pro prospects, could be better than championship 2009 unit
How good is 'Bama? Nick Saban isn't worried about settling on a starting QB
The confetti from Auburn's BCS championship victory over Oregon had yet to be cleared when the nation's college football prognosticators (including SI.com's own Andy Staples) universally tapped Oklahoma as the preseason favorite for 2011. That narrative has continued unabated through the various updated offseason rankings.
Fellas ... are you nuts?
No disrespect to the Sooners, who return the bulk of last year's 12-2, Big 12 championship squad, but the best team in the country this fall will be the Alabama Crimson Tide. Frankly, it's a bit baffling that this isn't a more common sentiment.
Yes, preseason polls follow a predictably standard formula, and no, Nick Saban's team doesn't exactly fit the mold. The Tide went 10-3 last year, not 12-2. They had four standouts -- 2009 Heisman winner Mark Ingram, defensive end Marcell Dareus, receiver Julio Jones and left tackle James Carpenter -- selected in the first round of last month's NFL draft, which seems like a lot to replace. And then there's the fact that the Tide will be breaking in a new quarterback, which always gives voters reason for pause.
But here's the thing: Alabama is loaded. Longtime NFL talent evaluator Gil Brandt recently rated seven Tide players among his top 65 prospects for the 2012 draft. This year's Alabama squad bears fewer household names, but it will be more talented and experienced than last year's -- and last year's team wasn't too shabby, despite what its fourth-place SEC West finish would seem to indicate.
Coming off a 2009 BCS title, Alabama was last year's default preseason favorite, with voters conveniently overlooking the presence of eight first-time starters on defense. The inexperience of those players reared its head on several occasions, as 'Bama gave up 35, 24 and 28 points, respectively, in defeats to South Carolina, LSU and Auburn.
"Once we won 19 games in a row, we sort of lost our standard a little bit," said Saban. "The standard became winning rather than doing the things we'd done here to help us win. The fundamentals were not as good overall."
And yet, Alabama still managed to finish third nationally in scoring defense (13.5 points per game). In fact, in Football Outsiders' final power rankings -- which assess every play and every drive of a team's season to measure offensive and defensive efficiency -- the 10-3 Tide finished behind only 14-0 Auburn and 12-1 Boise State.
"What [the numbers] see in Alabama is a team that played a really tough schedule and had about five bad quarters the entire season," said Football Outsiders' Bill Connelly. "The rest of the season they were pretty much as good as they were the year before, but youth reared its head at inopportune times."
In other words, Alabama's defensive breakdowns weren't frequent, but they too often came at crucial times in crucial games -- like, say, the second half of the Iron Bowl, when archrival Auburn rallied from a 24-0 halftime deficit for a 28-27 win, the biggest comeback in school history. The Tigers subsequently advanced to and won the SEC and BCS championships, while the Tide slunk off to the Capital One Bowl.
"It grossed me out just watching [the SEC and BCS title] games, knowing we had a 24-0 lead against Auburn," said Alabama running back Trent Richardson."We've got to man up to it, work hard, and say it's not going to happen again."
Saban said the 2010 Tide didn't really figure things out until the first day of 2011, when they routed 11-1 Michigan State 49-7 in the Capital One Bowl. In that potential preview of the season to come, linebacker Courtney Upshaw, a disruptive playmaker slowed much of the season by an ankle injury, was constantly in the Spartans' backfield, notching two sacks and three of the Tide's 11 tackles for loss. Marquis Maze, one of the receivers who must step up in place of Jones, caught a 37-yard touchdown.
"That team tried to create an identity for itself for the first time in the bowl game," said Saban. "I think to some degree I see some of that same sense of purpose a little bit more in this team."
Perhaps most telling is how often Alabama's perfectionist coach used the words "pleased" and "encouraged" when discussing the progress of various units during a spring sit-down in his office. Most notably, he seems far less concerned with choosing a starting quarterback -- either third-year sophomore A.J. McCarron or redshirt freshman Phil Sims -- than pretty much everyone outside the program.
"I would rather focus on the fact that both guys are playing extremely well, which I'm pleased with," Saban said two days before the pair put up nearly identical numbers in Alabama's A-Day game. (McCarron went 21-for-38 for 222 yards, an interception and a touchdown; Sims went 19-for-38 for 229 yards and a pick.) "Based on these two guys' leadership and personality, I don't think it's critical to the team that somebody needs to be the first-team quarterback right now."
Remember, Alabama won its 2009 title in Greg McElroy's first year as a starter.
Whoever wins the job will receive an enormous amount of help from Richardson. It's not often a team replaces a Heisman-winning, first-round running back (Ingram) with a standout nearly as recognizable. In two seasons as Ingram's sidekick, the sculpted Pensacola, Fla., native notched 1,843 rushing/receiving yards, including four 100-yard games. With Ingram sidelined by a knee injury to start last season, Richardson stepped up and rushed for 144 yards on 22 carries while adding 46 receiving yards in a 24-3 win over Penn State.
"Trent is a rare combination of size, speed and durability," said Saban. "[Richardson] played his best football last year when Mark wasn't playing in the first [two] games. We're hopeful that him being the bellcow, that he'll grow into that role of being a leader and a go-to guy."
The Tide will certainly miss three-year starting receiver Jones, whom the Atlanta Falcons traded five picks to select sixth overall in last month's NFL draft, but seniors Maze and Darius Hanks have a combined 138 career receptions.
Meanwhile, Alabama returns four of five starters on its offensive line, including third-year starting center William Vlachos and All-SEC guard Barrett Jones. Injuries to Jones (who missed the Auburn game) and right tackle D.J. Fluker (who missed four SEC games) plagued an already thin unit last season and stunted the running game at times. But because of that, 'Bama returns six linemen with starting experience. Saban felt comfortable enough in the spring to move Jones to Carpenter's vacated left tackle spot.
But the strength of the 2011 Tide will unquestionably be the defense, which could well match or exceed the production of the '09 unit. Upshaw, a junior, has the potential to follow in the footsteps of Dareus and Rolando McClain as another top 10 draft pick. Safety Mark Barron and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick are showing up on early first-round mocks as well. And cornerback DeQuan Menzie, a 2010 juco transfer who played mostly nickel back last year while recovering from injury, was the defense's breakout performer of the spring.
But the key figure is linebacker Dont'a Hightower, a 2008 Freshman All-America who missed most of '09 with a torn ACL. He returned last season and initially took over former Butkus winner McClain's spot at mike linebacker, but did not look comfortable. His play improved upon moving to weakside linebacker, but Hightower still failed to perform at the level many expected. This spring, however, he looked more like the unit's leader.
"Dont'a seems like he's got a little more juice, playing a little bit faster," said Saban. "He is a little more comfortable [calling signals]."
Talent is rarely a concern with Saban's teams. Alabama has landed Rivals.com's No. 1 recruiting classes three of the past four years (with the help of some creative roster management). More than almost any other coach, Saban constantly keys on his players' psychology. As he's done in the past, Saban this spring brought in Dr. Kevin Elko, a noted motivational speaker, whose main message to the team was, "Learn how to fight weary" -- a reference to last season's fourth-quarter breakdowns.
The most infamous of those, the Iron Bowl, gives the Tide a familiar motivating ingredient from their '09 title run: revenge.
"We certainly had a huge chip on our shoulder playing Florida in '09," said Vlachos. "It obviously turned out pretty good for us."
National champs certainly aren't crowned in May, and it could be that this season's top dog is currently lurking hype-free, like Auburn last season or Bob Stoops' then-unheralded Sooners way back in 2000. But Alabama in 2011 looks a lot like Florida a few years ago or USC a few years before that: the nation's most loaded program, taking a slight pause between championships.
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