Friday, August 21

Alabama Crimson Tide '09: Eerily similar to an article I would've posted last year had I written it

The 2008 Season in a Box
Ever get something from Brooks Brothers? I haven’t, but I imagine it comes in a pretty staid and standard box, and whatever you get in it is going to not only look solid at worst, it also cost the person who bought it a damn arm and a leg, because that place isn’t cheap. Still, given the option between Brooks Brothers and …well, nearly anywhere else, you’d probably choose Brooks Brothers if you cared about anything related to appearance at work. And we know that matters.

Of course, nobody told you that the stuff in there was off-brand and the shirts will rip after you wear them 10 times, but that happens sometimes. I mean, it’s not cheap.

Why Should This Season Be Any Different?
Really, there isn’t much reason why this season’s going to be that different. Even with the departure of the beautifully coiffed John Parker Wilson and workhorse RB Glen Coffee, Alabama’s in good shape to keep it going. JPW was a senior caretaker QB and not a world-beater, so the bar of competency is set pretty low for the guy who’ll be under center (likely Greg McElroy). Similarly, Coffee was good but the Tide RB stable is deep enough that they should be able to overcome his loss. Really, most of the other departures fall into that same category. Even the schedule is similar. If ‘Bama finished 5-7 this would be cause for concern, but that wasn’t the case.

On Offense
Saban hasn’t run a particularly showy offense since he got to Alabama; with the departure of John Parker Wilson to …well, the NFL might be a bit generous, but he’s gone at least. Since Greg McElroy looks like a poor man’s JPW at this point (his haircut isn’t nearly as nice), it’d make sense to expect the same kind of thing. Star Jackson slots in as the backup QB; he was a 2008 recruit but redshirted last season. He’s a dual-threat type QB (meaning at this stage of development, he can run and pass at about a 53% clip), so while he’ll be a useful player – and likely a standout player – a year or two down the road, at this point he’s pretty much strictly a change-of-pace player. McElroy, on the other hand, is strictly a game manager. He’ll be relied on to keep defenses honest and not just throw jump balls to Julio Jones.

Speaking of Jones, he absolutely qualifies as one of the few transcendent talents in the SEC, and he’s absolutely the only one who qualifies on this offense. As a true freshman, he was 2nd team in the SEC, which is a rare enough feat in most cases, but Jones was also the only passing threat on the team. 2nd WR Mike McCoy didn’t even get to 200 yards on the season, which is an impressive enough feat in its own right. Other than Jones, TE Nick Walker was the only guy who topped 200 yards on the season, and he graduated; TE duties will fall to Colin Peek. While there’s talent of the non-Julio Jones variety at WR, Jones is the only true passing threat on this team and that’ll likely continue this season. With true freshmen Kendall Kelly, Michael Bowman, and Kenny Bell arriving on campus this season, the future is in pretty decent shape, but the present is solely jump-ball territory.

Now, because the Tide are going to have to score at some point this season, that means it’ll fall to the running game. Even though Coffee has departed, Mark Ingram had a fantastic season as a redshirt freshman last year, running for 725 yards at a 5.1 ypc clip. He’ll likely slot in as the primary RB. Of the other returning rushers, Roy Upchurch and Terry Grant are the guys everyone’s heard of; Grant is the faster of the two backs, but he struggled with the system last season to the tune of only 2.5 ypc. Still, all three are legitimate backs and they’ll add true freshman Trent Richardson to the rotation. Richardson was one of the top backs of this year’s recruiting class, so he should step in nicely.

Alabama’s offensive schemes and attack methods for this season will look a lot like last year; meaning get ready for a lot of power running. I see Alabama’s offensive endgame as similar to LSU’s from a few years back; the RB stable is certainly there, but they’re still lacking the requisite passing game to really set everything in motion. Star Jackson may be the guy who gets them over that hump, but he’s still likely a year off from contributing in an every-down role.

On Defense and Special Teams
It’s more of the same on D; it’ll hurt that Rashad Johnson departs – not only because he was a 2nd-team All-American last year, but he was also the 2nd leading tackler on the team. Unlike most teams, this isn’t a bad sign with Saban’s defense; the FS is used as a rover, which means he’ll get more freedom to attack where he sees fit. Typically the FS serves as a “robber” over the middle (Saban prefers a Cover 1 scheme over Cover 2), meaning he also has the freedom to jump routes. Mark Barron will slot in as the new starter.

However, aside from Johnson’s departure the defense returns nearly intact. Even departed DE Bobby Greenwood will get replaced by Lorenzo Washington, who got displaced by Terrence Cody at NT – possibly literally. (Yes, there’s your requisite fat joke.) With Cody on the line, it’ll be an above-average line at worst; in all likelihood, they’ll be one of the better lines in the SEC.

Saban’s LB corps is one of the deepest and best in the SEC, if not the country. Rolando McClain returns at MLB after a campaign where he finished as a 3rd-team All-American; this year only Brandon Spikes has a mildly clear edge over McClain for the title of “Best LB in the SEC”. Aside from McClain, there’s still tons of talent; Brandon Fanney and Dont’A Hightower are the 3rd and 4th leading tacklers from last season, respectively and even Cory Reamer filled in decently after Jimmy Johns got busted for selling half the nose candy of Colombia. These guys probably won’t get a lot of PT this year, but don’t be surprised if Nico Johnson and Tana Patrick start making contributions sooner rather than later.

As far as secondaries go, this hasn’t been the best unit Saban’s fielded. As mentioned before, Barron steps into the FS / robber position outlined above, but everyone else returns. Javier Arenas is unquestionably the best CB of the bunch, and SS Justin Woodall was 2nd on the team in interceptions. Woodall may not have quite as much freedom to roam the field compared to last year, but he should be able to produce similar numbers.

Both K Leigh Tiffin and P PJ Fitzgerald return for their senior seasons; Tiffin in particular has excelled, especially at kicks under 40 yards. Fitzgerald isn’t anything special, though. Javier Arenas doubles as the return specialist for both kickoffs and punts; last year alone he returned 3 punts for TDs. Saying he’ll be dangerous would be a mild understatement.

So What’s Their Bowl Game
It’s always nice when you can list “National Championship Game” as a realistic hope, isn’t it? The schedule is navigable as these things go; picking up two road games at Kentucky and MSU are just about as easy as they come. However, the other two are doozies: Auburn’s at Auburn this year, and a road game at Ole Miss pretty early in the season as these things go (October 10th). That Ole Miss game will serve as the barometer for the season; win that game and they’re in the national title hunt up until – and perhaps after – the SEC Championship Game. Lose that, and they’ll absolutely need to run the table. Virginia Tech and LSU should be tough, but both are winnable. At 11-1 in the regular season, they’ll need to beat Florida to have a shot for the BCS Championship Game, but a BCS bowl as bid #2 isn’t unrealistic; if they don’t snag that, it’ll likely be the Capital One Bowl.