by Gary Olshan, Chief Analyst

The Crimson Tide is gunning for its third national title in the past four campaigns. Two years ago, Alabama returned just nine starters (only three on defense) from its 2009 national championship team and went 10-3. This time 12 starters have departed (eight selected in NFL draft, including four first-rounders!), but mastermind HC Nick Saban believes he has a “completely different” team than 2010, one that carries a better attitude coming off a national title.

Of course, the Tide will have a highly-challenging path to the promised land competing in the loaded SEC West, with road games at LSU and Arkansas and new SEC East rep Missouri. But Bama is on the short list of legitimate national title contenders, with Saban having strung together three straight recruiting classes ranked in the top five nationally. It’s really just a matter of getting the new starters up to game speed as quickly as possible.

On the offense (34.8 ppg), savvy, accurate jr. QB AJ McCarron (66.8 %, 16 TD, 5 ints.) went from primarily a game manager to a guy who could win games, as was the case in the stunning 21-0 triumph vs. LSU in the BCS Championship Game, when he completed 23 of 34 vs. the murderous Tiger stop unit. McCarron figures to efficiently direct an expanded, tweaked attack implemented by first-year o.c. Doug Nussmeier, replacing Jim McElwain, who left to take over at Colorado State. Nussmeier comes to Tuscaloosa after a successful three-year stint as the o.c/QB coach at Washington, where he tutored Jake Locker for two years and then helped Keith Price enjoy a solid first season after taking over for Locker. Nussmeier’s offenses in Seattle had a reputation for being balanced and explosive, finishing with 431 points in 2011—second most in school history.

With four starters back, including Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones (he’s been moved from LT to C in spring), long-time Tuscaloosa sources tell us this could be one of the top offensive fronts in school history! Marvelous RB Trent Richardson will be doing his thing in the NFL in 2012, but we believe the bread and butter ground assault will continue to flourish behind Eddie Lacy (674 YR, 7.1 ypc), versatile 246-pound jr. Jalston Fowler and scintillating frosh T.J. Yeldon, who was named the MVP in the spring game, as he accounted for 179 all-purpose yards. The Tide must find a go-to guy at WR to replace Marquis Maze, but leading candidates are jr. Kevin Norwood, who had four catches in the BCS Championship Game (including a jaw-dropping grab over Tigers’ A-A CB Tyrann Mathieu) and jr. WR Kenny Bell (17 catches for 255 yds., 2 TDs).

Seven starters must be replaced on a dominating defense (8.2 ppg, 233.5 ypg, 2.4 ypc) that needs to find a run-stuffing NG to replace departed Josh Chapman in their 3-4 schemes. The coaching staff experimented in the spring by moving DE Jesse Williams to that position, but the final decision will be made in the fall. The young but talented LB corps will be spearheaded by Nico Johnson (47 tackles), with super-sophs Trey DePreist, Adrian Hubbard and Xzavier Dickson seeing expanded roles.

There is lots of competition in the revamped secondary (3 starters gone to the NFL), with highly-touted jucos Deion Belue and ultra-athletic frosh Landon Collins (4.4 speed, 36-inch vertical) ready to help Saban (his true area of expertise is the secondary) quickly solidify a unit that is well-set at FS with sr. Robert Lester (10 “picks” the last two years), who considered a jump to the NFL.

Special teams, however, might need some work. PK Jeremy Shelley (21 of 27 FGs; only 2 of 6 beyond 40) is nearly automatic on short kicks, but Bama signed Adam Griffith, one of the nation’s prep kickers, to hopefully be the answer on the longer attempts. Punter Cody Mandell needs to improve his 39.3 average and dangerous returner Marquis Maze must be supplanted.

Summary...Bama (hich missed four FG attempts in its only setback of season year ago, the excruciating 9-6 OT loss vs. LSU) s trying to join Nebraska, whose 1994 and 1995 teams are the only ones in the past 56 years to repeat as the consensus national champion. And the reloading “D” must come together pronto with an early litmus test vs. Michigan and electric QB Denard Robinson in the opener at “Jerryland” on September 1. But we won’t be shocked at all to see Saban’s troops beat the odds and join the Huskers as the only other team in over a half century to win back-to-back national titles. Note, the “Nicktator” has been a wise investment, going 34-17 (67%) vs. the spread last 51 on board


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