A look at the players who will play a key role in the 2013 race for the SEC West
The breakout. With all due respect to the great career that Julio Jones had -- Amari Cooper looks to be on track to be remembered as the best wide receiver in Alabama history, at least statistically. After his freshman season, Cooper is already writing his names all over the Alabama record book. Cooper's 16.9 yard-per-catch average was the second-best total in a season for players with at least 50 catches, and his 11 touchdowns last season is the most for any Tide receiver in a single season; no other receiver in Alabama history has more than 18 in their career. Cooper is already tied for fourth on the list of career 100-yard games with five, and two more season at his current pace would allow him to pass D.J. Hall's record of 13. Cooper had only the fifth 1,000-yard season in Alabama history, though he made exactly that number. Only Hall (twice) and Jones had more yards in a season, while some guy named David Palmer had the same total in 1993. (No, not the faux president.)
McCarron's favorite target. Part of the reason for those gaudy numbers is that Cooper was far and away the guy McCarron was most likely to look for when he dropped back for the pass. Cooper caught 59 passes -- only five players in Alabama history have had more receptions in a season -- and accounted for almost 27 percent of all catches for the Tide in 2012. (It's hard to break out which quarterbacks threw which passes to Cooper, but McCarron threw all but eight of Alabama's completions last season, so it's safe to assume that the starter threw almost all if not all of them.) No one else on the roster had even half as many, though Kevin Norwood came close with 29.
The help. Normally, the level of production Cooper showed in 2012 would doom a player to double coverage and other defensive schemes to take him away from the offense. And while Cooper will certainly get more attention in 2013, it's going to be hard to focus solely on the passing game with T.J. Yeldon running the ball -- and even if you take that way, it's not like Cooper is the only weapon at McCarron's disposal. There's Norwood, who cashed in almost 82.8 percent of his catches for first downs, and Kenny Bell, who averaged 25.4 yards per reception, though on just 17 grabs. If the other team tries to make Alabama beat it without Amari Cooper, the Tide can.
In the final analysis. What has to be truly frightening for opposing coaches is that Amari Cooper didn't have more than 100 receiving yards in a game until Oct. 20 at Tennessee, but did so in five of eight games starting with the showdown against the Vols. In other words, you can make an argument that Cooper was just getting started as 2012 came to a close. On the other hand, it's going to be hard for Cooper to do much better than he did last season, and a preseason injury can't help things. Then again, it might not be necessary to do that much better. If Cooper performs at anywhere close to the level he played at in 2013, the Tide's passing offense should be in fine shape. And Cooper will keep moving his name up the lists that he doesn't already top.