With a good deal of help from Year2.
For practically my entire life, Alabama has been a team defined by defense. The first college football national champion I can remember is the 1992 Alabama team, which defined "defense wins championships" better than maybe any team in football at any level, limiting 10 of its 13 opponents to fewer than 11 points and snagging 22 interceptions in the process. Even last year's team owed its national title as much to the defense (the win against Ole Miss, Mt. Cody's blocks vs. Tennessee, the flip side of the "Mark Ingram Game" against South Carolina) as maybe any other part of the team.
But this year is different, in part because just two defensive starters return to the Tide, while major factor (if not technically a "returning starter" by some definitions) Marcel Dareus awaits the fallout of Agentgate. This year, with one of the best running back tandems in the nation, a solid receiving corps and the most experienced quarterback in the SEC, Alabama will try to find out if offense wins championships as well.
WHO RETURNS: THE OFFENSE
One of the things it's important to recognize is that Alabama had ridiculous consistency in its offensive line last year. And when I say "ridiculous" -- all five starters were the same from the first day of the season to the last. William Vlachos started every game at center, the guards were always Barrett Jones and Mike Johnson, and your tackles were Drew Davis and James Carpenter. The upside of that is that Alabama returns 60 percent of its offensive line starts in the form of Vlachos, Jones and Carpenter. The downside is that the Tide loses 40 percent of its offensive line starts in the form of Johnson and Davis. (Not to mention their combined 69 career starts.)
The true puzzle might be Greg McElroy, who seemed to be a different quarterback in September and November than he was in October. In fact, he was a very good quarterback in September and November -- among the best by passer rating -- and not good by almost any measure in October.
|Greg McElroy 2009, By Month|
* November includes SEC Championship Game, Dec. 5
While part of that can be explained by the defenses he faced -- FIU, North Texas, Arkansas, Chattanooga and Auburn are included in the good months -- that's not enough on its own. McElroy was solid if not spectacular against Virginia Tech (15-of-30, 230 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT), efficient and effective against Florida (12-of-18, 239 yards, 1 TD) and failed to break 150 yards against four defenses of varying quality in October (Kentucky, Ole Miss, South Carolina and Tennessee).
The only loss at the skill positions -- if you consider tight end a "skill position" -- is Colin Peek.
And not just the starters are back; the Tide returns 83.9 percent of its rushing yardage, including Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. And "some think Richardson might even be better than Ingram" has almost reached the level of cliche.
And the players responsible for 77.8 percent of Bama's receiving yards are also back, including Julio Jones (coming off a relatively disappointing 596 yards and 4 TDs) and Marquis Maze, whose average reception in 2009 was three yards longer than Jones' and who at 5' 10" is taller than just five players on the Tide's entire roster.
WHO LEAVES: THE DEFENSE (BASICALLY)
On the other side is the carnage of attrition, such as it is for a team as loaded with talent as Alabama. It might be easier at this point to list the starters that are returning: Mark Barron and Dont'a Hightower. That's it.
Not that Barron and Hightower aren't the kind of players you would want to have back if you're trying to
defend repeat as champions. (Sorry, Coach Saban. It won't happen again.) Barron had seven interceptions for 125 return yards and a touchdown, while Hightower had four tackles for loss in as many games before being sidelined by a knee injury.
As with the offensive returns, the defensive losses go deeper than just the starters: 12 of the top 16 tacklers are gone, including three of the four top men in terms of sacking the quarterback. (The top three in quarterback hurries are all gone.) We're assuming that Marcell Dareus isn't losing any eligibility for the purposes of our exercise here.
Which brings to mind one of the things that is important to remember when we talk about starters, particularly defensive starters: It's not always the most meaningful exercise in the world. Dareus isn't "a returning starter" by the textbook definition, but he had 9 TFL, 6.5 sacks and 7 quarterback hurries in 14 games. Were I an Alabama fan, I'd be more concerned with losing 12 of the top 16 tacklers -- a number that actually has a quantifiable meaning -- than hyperventilating over the returning starters.
The overwhelming majority of new starters, though, saw action in a majority of the Tide's games last year. And many of them were well-regarded recruits. Which isn't to say they won't make mistakes -- to the contrary, they almost certainly will. But the learning curve isn't too steep, and the mistakes will probably be few enough for the offense to win the necessary games. (Again, things I never thought I'd say about Alabama.)
WHO ELSE LEAVES: THE SPECIAL TEAMS (ENTIRELY)
For whatever stock you want to put into special teams, the "Starters Returning" list in the Alabama media guide is relatively succint: "None."
New faces will handle punts, kicks, holding kicks, kickoffs, returns and long snapper. (Brian Selman had 41 starts at the position, which has to be some sort of record, and 412 successful snaps.) That means Leigh Tiffin, who went from goat to reliable kicker in Tuscaloosa, leaves after becoming the leading scorer in Alabama history. P.J. Fitzgerald started 54 games in his career, which is some sort of record -- the school mark.
Alabama has options at return specialist, the most likely option being Julio Jones. As for the kickers -- well, the ones on the roster have little experience, and kickers and punters don't generally get stars from the recruiting services, so we've got very little information to go on. But if the Tide needs the special teams to win games -- with all due respect to the coaches who will tell you it's the most important part of the game, then Alabama will have much more serious problems to address.