Coach: Mike Shula (3rd season, 10-15) 2004 record: 6-6 (Lost to Minnesota in Music City Bowl) SEC finish: 3-5 (t-3rd West) 2004 I-A offensive rankings:Rushing: 26th (185.1 ypg) Passing: 112th (141.6 ypg) 2004 I-A defensive rankings: Rushing: 37th (132.4 ypg) Passing: 1st (113.1 ypg)
at South Carolina
at Ole Miss
at Mississippi State
Depth Chart: Offense
6 returning starters in red
John Parker Wilson
Depth Chart: Defense
9 returning starters in red
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If you like Alabama as a contender in the SEC in 2005, start by crossing your fingers. The Crimson Tide is hoping that an unnerving spell of injuries has run its course, and that Bama can get back to chasing championships at full strength.
The Tide's best-case scenario starts with healthy returns for quarterback Brodie Croyle and running backs Ken Darby and Tim Castille, who are recovering from knee-hernia-knee surgeries, respectively.
Alabama's wish list continues with an encore performance from the veteran defense, which ranked No. 2 nationally last season, and contributions from a strong class of freshmen.
Alabama football is desperate to vault back into what it feels like is its rightful place among the nation's elite. The Crimson Tide went bowling in its first year out from under NCAA sanctions in 2004, but its sights are higher than the Music City Bowl this time around.
"We've taken some strides," said Shula, who is just 10-15 in two seasons at his alma mater. "But not near where we need to take them."
If Alabama is to contend in the SEC, the Tide must be substantially better on offense in 2005. For that to happen, Croyle and Darby must regain their health. Croyle played just two and a half games, hitting 66 percent of his passes and throwing six touchdowns and no interceptions, before a knee injury cut his season short.
Darby should be one of the SEC's best backs if he recovers fully from hernia surgery. The Tide's blocking is still suspect, with three new starters joining the offensive front, the tight ends lacking experience, and Castille on the mend from October knee surgery.
Alabama's abundant talent at receiver should begin to blossom with a healthy Croyle. Tyrone Prothro is one of the nation's most dangerous open-field runners. Ezekial Knight had a big spring and should lead a pack of talented sophomores, including Keith Brown, Matt Caddell and DJ Hall, to bigger performances.
The Crimson Tide recruited well at the skill positions. Freshmen Roy Upchurch and Mike Ford, if eligible, might be ready to compete for playing time in the backfield with Darby and Aaron Johns.
With 9 starters back from the nation's second-ranked defense, coordinator Joe Kines can afford to broaden his blitz packages and attack more vigorously at the line of scrimmage.
This could be the deepest front four at Alabama in recent memory, with highly regarded signees like Lorenzo Washington and Brandon Fanney pushing three returners and rising star end Wallace Gilberry for playing time. Watch for end Mark Anderson to have a breakout senior year.
Alabama's linebacking crew could probably stack up with anybody's. DeMeco Ryans leads the unit on the strong side, with Freddie Roach settling in the middle after a jack-of-all-trades season, and a healthy Juwan Garth bulking up on the weak side. The reserves at linebacker are slightly undersized, but Kines is determined to use his bench.
Competition should abound in the secondary, even though all four starters are back. Seniors Roman Harper and Charlie Peprah have the schemes down; now they need to work on forcing more turnovers. The trio of Anthony Madison, Ramzee Robinson and Simeon Castille should be very solid at corner, and Eric Gray and newcomer Lionel Mitchell strengthen the group.
The transition to a new placekicker and new punter appears to signal a dropoff. Kickers Jamie Christensen and C.J. Rhody were inconsistent in the spring, though both have a reputation for sporting strong legs. Jeremy Schatz emerged from the spring as the top punter, but he was far from impressive. Patrick Eades and Jeffrey Aul should challenge at that spot in fall camp.
Prothro is dynamic as a return man, but he needs better blocking to open the field. Alabama led the nation in kick returns until some late-season bumbling dropped its average.
The talent is in place for Alabama to make a move out of mediocrity in the league. Obviously, healthy skill players are a must, plus Coach Shula and his staff must prove they can win the tight ones. Nine games in the Shula era have been decided by single digits, and Alabama has lost them all. Shula needs to reverse that trend and get his team to contend if his first head coaching job is to be a long one.