When you think of Alabama teams under Nick Saban, you generally think about defense. Saban is known for teams that suffocate the opponents offense while grinding out yards, something that can make even relatively narrow scores feel like blowouts. (A 20-6 win against South Carolina back in 2009 was one of the smallest margins on a game that was so dominated by one team.)
This year, though, the most intriguing element of the team might be the offense. Not necessarily in the same vain as the ill-fated (by Alabama standards) 2010 team, where the offense was expected to carry the team to another national title and instead ended up with a 10-3 record. (The humanity!) Because there are some exceptional players on this offense, including T.J. Yeldon and Amari Cooper, who in terms of sheer talent might be one of the best wideouts in the SEC this year. But there's also a huge question mark that could keep it from coming together and could imperil Alabama's attempt to win its fourth national championship in six seasons.
BIGGEST RETURN | RB T.J. Yeldon
It's not that often that an SEC running back puts up back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and then returns to play once more, but Yeldon ran for 1,108 yards and 12 touchdowns during his freshman year in 2012, then rushed for 1,235 yards and 14 touchdowns last year. Those were not numbers inflated by games against cupcakes; in 2013, Yeldon ran for just 100 yards (on just 13 carries) against the non-Virginia Tech, non-Oklahoma portion of the out-of-conference schedule, and had just 143 rushing yards on 23 attempts against non-AQ teams during his freshman season. And that was with the veteran A.J. McCarron under center. (Yeldon has been less of a factor in the passing game; he has 31 catches for 314 yards and a touchdown over his two seasons at Alabama.) With the quarterback situation at Alabama still in flux, expect the Crimson Tide to lean even more heavily on the running game, at least over the first several weeks of the season. That could translate into big numbers and Heisman buzz for Yeldon.
BIGGEST LOSS | QB A.J. McCarron
It's hard to get too original here when Alabama lost McCarron and has had as much trouble as it has settling on a successor. You don't have to buy the "he just won" lines to know that McCarron's a huge loss for the Tide. He was 226-of-336 passing last year for 3,063 yards, 28 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Say whatever you want about McCarron's bona fides as a pro or his status as a game manager in the Alabama offense -- McCarron was good at doing what he was asked to do for the Tide. Alabama's depth most years makes it easy to at least limit the damage from the batch of players who had to the NFL every offseason, but the struggle to name a starter shows that depth might not extend to the most important position on the offense, at least not this year.
BREAKTHROUGH POSSIBILITY | QB Jacob Coker
Given that Coker still hasn't taken over the starting quarterback job as easily as most expected, this requires some explanation. The consensus I've heard from listening to a few Alabama fans is that if the Tide is going to be successful this year -- and nothing short of national title contention is considered "successful" in Alabama circles -- Coker is going to have to be the starting quarterback eventually. And he's going to have to do well. That's not saying that Blake Sims is a bad quarterback or wouldn't be able to steer this team to 10 wins, because that should be about the baseline expectation for the Tide at this point. But from all appearances at this point in time, Alabama needs Coker to be as good as everyone thought he was to try and retake the division. Coker might not be a breakthrough star for Alabama in 2014, but if he isn't, it probably means that the team isn't living up to its goals.