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2010 NCAA Football Preview: Alabama Crimson Tide

2009 Record: 14-0 (8-0 in SEC)
2009 Bowl: BCS National Championship Game (beat Texas 37-21)
Final 2009 AP Ranking: #1
Head Coach: Nick Saban (33-8 at Alabama, 124-50-1 All-Time)
Non-Conference Schedule: San Jose State (9/4), Penn State (9/11), at Duke (9/18), Georgia State (11/18)

2009 Offensive Statistics
Scoring: 31.1 points per game (4th in SEC)
Rushing Yards/Game: 215 (3rd in SEC)
Passing Yards/Game: 187 (8th in SEC)
Total Yards/Game: 403 (5th in SEC)

2009 Defensive Statistics
Scoring: 11.7 points per game (1st in SEC, 2nd in Nation)
Rushing Yards/Game: 79 (1st in SEC, 2nd in Nation)
Passing Yards/Game: 166 (4th in SEC, 10th in Nation)
Total Yards/Game: 245 (1st in SEC, 2nd in Nation)

2009 Misc Stats
Turnover Margin: +1.36 per game (1st in SEC, 4th in Nation)
Penalties: 42 yards per game (3rd in SEC)

Returning Starters
Offense: 8
Defense: 3
Kicker/Punter: 0

Top Returning Statistical Leaders
Passing: QB Greg McElroy, Sr (198 of 325 for 2508 yds, 17 TD, 4 INT, 179 ypg)
Rushing: RB Mark Ingram, Jr (271 carries for 1658 yds, 17 TD, 6.1 ypc, 118 ypg)
Rushing: RB Trent Richardson, Soph (144 carries for 749 yds, 8 TD, 5.2 ypc, 53 ypg
Receiving: WR Julio Jones, Jr (43 rec, 596 yds, 4 TD, 3.3 rec/game)
Tackles: SS Mark Barron, Jr (74)
Sacks: DE Marcell Dareus, Jr (6.5)
Interceptions: SS Mark Barron, Jr (7)

2010 Pre-Season Rankings
Athlon Sports: #1
Lindy's: #1
Mark Schlabach: #1
Phil Steele- #3
Rivals: #1
Scout- #1
Sports Illustrated: #1
Sporting News: #1
USA Today Coaches Poll: #1

2010 Pre-Season SEC West Prediction:
Athlon Sports: #1
Phil Steele: #1

2010 Bowl Prediction
Athlon Sports: National Championship (vs. Ohio State)
Phil Steele: Sugar Bowl (vs. TCU)

There is not much that I can say about Alabama's 2009 season that you do not already know. They won the National Championship and Mark Ingram won the Heisman Trophy. The expectations for Alabama this year are high as nearly everyone is picking them to repeat. The challenges are plenty for Nick Saban and his crew as he has to replace a ton of talent on the defensive side of the football, and the kicker and punter among other things. Our Alabama blogger J Martin previously answered some questions about Alabama for us here. For this preview we went back to our resident expert in all things Alabama to find out some more pressing answers.

You've said your "over/under" on a possible Marcell Dareus suspension is three games. If he is suspended, who is going to replace him and how big is the drop-off?

If Dareus misses time, look out for redshirt sophomore Damion Square. At 6’3”, 284 lbs, he’s probably the best physical match to step into that role. Much like Dareus, he’s a freakish mix of size, agility, and explosive speed. And if 2009 had turned out differently, he might be as well known as his fellow Class of 08er. Square was very impressive through the 09 fall camp and most “in the know” had him pegged for a breakout season, right along with Dareus. Unfortunately, he blew out his knee against FIU in the second game of the season and had to watch the rest of the national championship season from the sidelines. On the positive side, though, apparently he went to the same witch doctor Dont’a Hightower did, and he made an improbable return to the field for spring practice. All signs indicate his knee has held up well, and he looks primed for a do-over in 2010. Regardless of what happens with Dareus, Square will get significant playing time this season, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he eventually overtakes Luther Davis for the other starting DE spot. But he’ll be the guy if somebody has to step up for Marcell. I can’t say there won’t be a drop-off because nobody is calling Square a possible Top 5 draft pick, but it might not be as big as you would think. Square is another hidden gem on this defense.

Alabama is returning the least amount of defensive starters in the SEC. You've already mentioned B.J. Scott as an "X-Factor". Who else needs to step up in order for Bama to avoid a big drop-off in defensive production?

Too many guys…The first person I would think of is whoever ends up playing safety alongside Mark Barron. As much as it hurt to graduate Kareem Jackson, Javier Arenas, and Marquis Johnson from the cornerback spots, I think losing safety Robbie Green to a year-long suspension may have been a bigger loss. With him on the field, you at least had two experienced safeties to clean up mistakes by the new corners. Now you’re going to have a safety who’s just as likely, from a game experience perspective, to bust a coverage as the new corners are. That’s a problem. Despite his reputation for recruiting freak athletes, Saban ultimately values knowledge of the playbook over physical attributes, so I’m thinking the job ends up going to the solid, but thoroughly unspectacular, redshirt sophomore Robert Lester (yes, another 08er). I think if he can just be sound in his assignments, he’ll be a big help, and perhaps somewhat of an improvement on last year’s starter, the erratic Justin Woodall.

Secondly, I’d look to junior Jerrell Harris at the Sam linebacker position being vacated by Cory Reamer. In a perfect world, Harris would be the returning starter at that position. But in a perfect world, Harris wouldn’t have accepted an impermissible benefit and been suspended for 6 games either. While he was sitting out, the stalwart Reamer stepped in and proved himself to be a reliable, assignment sound defender, and Harris never sniffed the starting lineup once his suspension was up. Remember what I just said about Saban holding smarts above pure talent? Harris was a highly-touted recruit out of high school, and Reamer never would have so much as gotten a scholarship offer from Saban if he had been at Alabama then. But you could count on Reamer to be in the right place at the right time. That responsibility falls to Harris now. If he can pair his formidable athletic talents with the know-how of a Reamer, Bama will have a big upgrade at that position.

Really, I think that’s the theme for the whole defense: All these 4* and 5* talents need to learn to play with the smarts of the Cory Reamer’s and Eryk Anders’ of last year’s team. If they can do that, not only will they mitigate the drop-off from last season’s numbers, they could actually improve them. No joke.

How good is Trent Richardson? Does he have the ability to be better than Mark Ingram?

Trent Richardson is the real deal, without a doubt. Is he capable of being better than Mark Ingram? To answer that, you’d really have to define in what ways you’re talking about him being better. Physically, he’s already better. He’s stronger, he’s faster. The one knock on Ingram’s game is that he doesn’t have that 5th gear, score-from-anywhere speed. Richardson does. The coaches have to shut him OUT of the weight room to keep him from getting too big for his own good. Now, in terms of the mental aspect and the nuances of the position, Ingram still has a lead on him. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, Ingram’s patience and vision is unmatched. That’s what takes him from being just another good running back to a great one that’s capable of taking over a game. Richardson doesn’t have that. At least not that we’ve seen yet. One of the unsung heroes of the Bama coaching staff is running backs coach Burton Burns. From 07 to 08, he developed Glen Coffee from a mediocre SEC back to a high round draft pick. From 08 to 09, he took Mark Ingram from a promising young back to the Heisman Trophy winner. Who knows what progress he’s made with Richardson this year? Richardson's ceiling is much higher than Ingram's. All that remains is to be seen is if he'll put in the work to reach it.

The big game circled on the schedule this year in the SEC is Alabama/Florida. What does Alabama need to do to win that game?

Well, the first thing they’re going to have to do is stay hungry. Just as the 09 Bama team put a mark on Florida, the 10 Florida team has put a mark on Bama. From a talent and experience perspective, Bama should have the edge. But Florida isn’t that far off, and if they want it more, they can win the game. Again, this is the inverse of last year’s SEC championship game. From an X’s and O’s perspective, on defense, the #1 goal is pressuring John Brantley. He has the arm talent to shred the secondary if he has time to make good decisions in the pocket. Alabama needs to speed up his process. The way the scheduling works out, Brantley will be largely untested up to this point (only road game against a terrible Tennessee team), so a good pass rush coupled with 100,000+ Bama fans going crazy could rattle him pretty severely. I don’t think Bama is going to have to fear Florida’s running game at all. Offensively, they just need to pick up where they left off in Atlanta. Though they’ll be much less experienced than last year, Florida will still be too talented to be one dimensional against. Bama OC Jim McElwain called a gem of a game in the SEC championship. The Florida defense had no idea what was going on all afternoon. Another well called game should mean another big victory for the Tide.

Greg McElroy won a National Championship in his first season at the helm of the Crimson Tide. What does he need to do for an encore and are there any QBs in the SEC that you would take over him?

I think McElroy just needs to keep being McElroy. It’ll be a major disappointment when/if he finally loses, but regardless…he’s a winner, pure and simple. Some guys just have that, and he does. Plenty of guys with more talent don’t. Personally, I’ll take the wins. And I think he really is underappreciated at large. Aside from the Ole Miss and South Carolina games and a few plays against LSU, he played very well last year. (I don’t hold his low numbers in the Texas game against him.) He only threw 4 interceptions last year (second only to Kellen Moore), and two were in one game and another was off a batted ball! That’s being smart with the football, and I’ll take that over a guy with a big arm who slings the ball around all willy-nilly every day of the week. As much fun as it might be to see Ryan Mallett throwing it up to Julio Jones, that dude is a headcase. I wouldn’t trust him with a bush hog, let alone a football team. Give me GMAC. Although if there’s one area where he can improve his game, it’s his connection with Julio. McElroy is a much better passer than John Parker Wilson was, but JP knew how to get the ball to Julio. I’m not someone who thinks Julio needs 100 catches, but it would definitely add a facet to the offense that was missing last year if he can get the ball to Julio more consistently. Hopefully, they’ve been working on that this offseason.

Offensive Coordinator Jim McElwain drew a lot of off-season attention and will probably make his way into a Head Coaching gig soon. Who is Nick Saban grooming to replace him or do you think he will look outside the program when the time comes?

The main thing Saban looks for in an offensive coordinator is playcalling. Saban dictates the offensive philosophy, and game planning is handled via committee with the whole offensive staff. He just wants somebody to call a smart game from the booth. Currently, the only offensive assistant with any playcalling experience is offensive line coach Joe Pendry, but Pendry is winding down his career and wasn’t considered for the job when Major Applewhite was ushered out the door following the 07 season. So it’ll be a major surprise if he doesn’t go outside the program when the time comes to replace McElwain. As for what external candidates Saban might target, its difficult to say, but you can bet they’ll run a pro style offense and likely have some NFL experience. And they probably won't be a splashy name either.

What do you think has to happen for Alabama to repeat as SEC Champions and National Champions?

Defensively, Alabama needs to avoid injuries in the secondary. As I said in the BJ Scott piece, I feel good about the defensive back situation as it stands now. But if Dre Kirkpatrick, or whoever, goes down, it would create a gaping hole in the defense. Aside from the catastrophic knee injuries suffered by Damion Square and Dont’a Hightower year, Bama has had exceptionally good luck on the injury front the past two seasons. They’ll need that to continue in 2010. On special teams, the Tide needs to find someone who can consistently put the ball through the uprights and punt the ball more than 20 yards. Offensively, Bama needs to be more dynamic and explosive on offense. With the turnover on defense and special teams, I don’t think the offense can expect to just protect the ball and play field position and eek out 12-10 wins this year. If they settle for 30 field goal attempts in 2010, they will likely have 2 losses, as well. Collectively, they need to maintain the same focus and work ethic they had last year. Last year's team won a lot of games by pure force of will as much as they did talent. I think it will also be important for the coaching staff to rotate a lot of bodies into the early games in anticipation of the brutal SEC schedule with 6 opponents coming off bye weeks. The only way they're going to be able to compete with so many of those fresher teams is to have a load of reliable bodies to throw at them. Getting the sophomores and redshirt freshmen who've yet to see significant playing time into the mix early will be key.

Previous SEC Previews:
Auburn Tigers
Florida Gators
Georgia Bulldogs
Kentucky Wildcats
LSU Tigers
Mississippi Rebels
South Carolina Gamecocks
Vanderbilt Commodores

Next Up: Mississippi State Bulldogs

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