Wednesday, September 2, 2009

CFI Countdown: #4 Alabama Crimson Tide

2008 Record: 12-2 (SEC 8-0)
Bowl Game: Lost Sugar Bowl to Utah 31-17
Location: Tuscaloosa, Alabama
Stadium: Bryant-Denny Stadium (92,138)
Head Coach: Nick Saban
Overall: 110-50-1 (14th season)
@ Alabama: 19-8 (3rd season)
Link to ‘Bama Football Page

In just his second season as headman of the Crimson Tide, Nick Saban had Alabama in the SEC Championship game with an undefeated record and a 20-17 lead heading into the fourth quarter. It didn’t work out too well after that, but Saban and his Tide made a statement to the rest of the SEC—Bama is back and they aren’t going away. The Tide should be right in the thick of things once again and could find themselves going toe-to-toe once again with the Gators in early December.

When the Crimson Tide Have the Ball

Offensive Coordinator: Jim McElwain (2nd season)
Scheme: Multiple Sets
Starters Returning: Four
Key Losses: QB John Parker Wilson, OT Andre Smith, RB Glenn Coffee, C Antoine Caldwell, TE Nick Walker, TE Travis McCall, G Marlon Davis

Alabama must replace seven starters lost from last season’s offense including veteran quarterback John Parker Wilson, as well as offensive line stalwarts tackle Andre Smith and center Antoine Caldwell. The first order of business is of course addressing the quarterback position with junior Greg McElroy set to take over the helm. McElroy is an accurate passer with a good understanding of the game—with experience, he may give them as much as JPW did. More difficult will be replacing the linemen—Smith and Caldwell have been starting in Crimson seemingly forever and Smith is a talent that doesn’t come around that often. The job of replacing the duo falls to junior college transfer James Carpenter at left tackle and sophomore William Vlachos at center. They do have an All-American candidate in senior guard Mike Johnson with senior Drew Davis back at right tackle. Glenn Coffee was also lost to the NFL, but with sophomore Mark Ingram, junior Terry Grant, senior Roy Upchurch, and true freshman Trent Richardson…they’re covered. Ingram is a hard inside runner, Grant flashed explosiveness in his freshman season, Upchurch is very versatile, and they will all be pushed by the highly touted Richardson. No one is more gifted than sophomore wide out Julio Jones, who stepped in looking like a man from day one. Jones has the size and hands of a possession receiver and the speed to stretch the field, which is the strength of fellow sophomore Marquis Maze. If not Maze, someone needs to take some pressure off of Jones. The arrival of Georgia Tech transfer Colin Peek eases the loss of their tight ends.

Top Pro Prospects: 1) WR Julio Jones (SO), 2) OG Mike Johnson (SR), 3) RB Mark Ingram (SO)

When the Other Team Has the Ball

Defensive Coordinator: Kirby Smart (3rd season)
Scheme: Multiple 3-4
Starters Returning: Nine
Key Losses: S Rashad Johnson, DE Bobby Greenwood, LB Brandon Fanney (Transfer)

The biggest reason for Saban’s almost instant success in Tuscaloosa is how quickly he has put together the personnel to fit his 3-4 defensive scheme. They possess two absolute studs at inside linebacker in junior Rolando McClain and sophomore Dont’a Hightower—each checks in at over 250 pounds and can flat out run, striking fear in the hearts of all ball carriers. If, that is, those carriers get past noseman Terrence “Mount” Cody, who tips the scales at over 350 pounds and is the ideal anchor for the 3-4 defense. Helping him hold down the fort is senior Lorenzo Washington. Fellow end Brandon Deaderick suffered a gunshot wound this week, which isn’t life threatening (he’s been released from the hospital), but it remains unclear how it will impact his 2009 season. Coming off the edge, senior Cory Reamer is solid, but they could use more of pass rush from their linebackers—the one thing this defense has lacked. With two of the better corners in the SEC—senior Javier Arenas and junior Kareem Jackson—they can match up with almost any passing attack in the country. Senior Marquis Johnson is a solid backup, with true freshman Dre Kilpatrick talented enough to push for playing time. They must replace their leader in the secondary, Rashad Johnson, but do return senior Justin Woodall, one of the top free safeties in the game. Sophomore Mark Barron is ready to break out from his strong safety spot.

Top Pro Prospects: 1) LB Rolando McClain (JR), 2) LB Dont’a Hightower (SO), 3) NT Terrence Cody (SR)

The Schedule

Last season, they kick-started their undefeated regular season with a win over ACC favorite Clemson in Atlanta, which is exactly how they hope to start 2009, this time against the Virginia Tech Hokies in what looks more like a BCS Bowl then an opening weekend contest. Their toughest four-game stretch comes from October 10th to November 7th, although only one of the four games is on the road, at Ole Miss. If the Tide leave Dixieland unblemished they could be looking at a 12-0 record. Before they get there, they will have to handle South Carolina, Tennessee, and LSU to close out that stretch. Their season finale is at Auburn, in one of the top rivalries in all of college football.

Pivotal Point

With three-year starter Parker Wilson gone and the inexperienced McElroy—he of the 20 career passing attempts—taking over, quarterback play will be vital to the Crimson Tide’s success. However, just is important is replacing the three players lost from the offensive line—one tackle, one guard, and their center. One need look no further than their 31-17 loss to Utah in the Sugar Bowl to realize how key the O-Line play is for the offense. With Smith suspended for the contest, Wilson was back peddling all game long and was sacked eight times by the Utes. As a result, he Tide rolled…to a halt on the ground, averaging 0.9 yards per carry—not quite the 4.6 yards per rush they averaged for the season. McElroy’s success will go hand-in-hand with the development of the boys up front.

CFI Final Analysis

I don’t think anyone doubts that with Saban back in the SEC that the Crimson Tide will be a perennial contender. Even with the significant losses on the offensive end, with nine starters back on the defensive side of the ball don’t expect much of a drop off. If they can get past the Hokies in week one, they will have several weeks to work out the offensive kinks heading into their key conference clashes, which bodes well for ‘Bama but not so well for the rest of the SEC West. Expect the Tide make a return trip to the SEC Championship game.

College Football Insiders Top 25 Countdown:

The Next 25 (26-50) Plus 18 Bowl Teams
#25 West Virginia Mounainteers
#24 Tennessee Volunteers
#23 Clemson Tigers
#22 Pittsburgh Panthers
#21 Michigan St. Spartans
#20 Utah Utes
#19 Oregon Ducks
#18 Florida St. Seminoles
#17 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
#16 Boise St. Broncos
#15 North Carolina Tar Heels
#14 Penn St. Nittany Lions
#13 Mississippi Rebels
#12 Oklahoma St. Cowboys
#11 California Golden Bears
#10 Iowa Hawkeyes
#9 Virginia Tech Hokies
#8 Georgia Bulldogs
#7 USC Trojans
#6 LSU Tigers

#5 Ohio St. Buckeyes
Photos Courtesy of Alabama Media Relations & SEC Sports Media