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Dr. Saturday

The Contenders: Alabama’s BCS case comes with a dose of déja vu

Breaking down the preseason favorites for the BCS championship. Previously: LSU, Stanford, Oregon, Oklahoma. Today: Alabama.

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Hide the women and children, and most of the men. Successful Tide teams in any era have always been built around defense, and on paper, the 2011 edition can be as good as any of them — up to and including the venerated 1992 outfit that crushed every offense in its path en route to Alabama's first national championship of the post-Bear era, or the equally celebrated unit that led the SEC and finished second nationally in every major defensive category on its way to the BCS title two years ago. Those are the championship models dancing in every dreaming Tider's head at night, and in fact, last year's revamped D wasn't as far off the mark as the team's fourth-place finish in the SEC West suggests: Down nine starters, three All-Americans and six draft picks from the best defense in the country in '09, 'the new-look Tide still finished No. 1 in the SEC and among the top five nationally in yards and points allowed.

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Now the scary part: With All-SEC Mark Barron's decision to skip the draft for his senior season, this fall's defense will reprise the veteran template of the 2009 group with a whopping ten returning starters — all but defensive lineman Marcell Dareus, a top-five draft pick — every single one of them a former four or five-star prospect from the succession of chart-topping recruiting classes that have beaten a path to Tuscaloosa since 2008. (To say nothing of the latest chart-topping class that signed on in February.) If it makes good on its promise to get to the quarterback more often, the 'Bama D will again be the most fearsome unit in the country on either side of the ball, bar none.

All the ways you will disappoint us. The floppy-haired line of succession among Alabama quarterbacks has consistently produced the same guy at the top of the depth chart for at least 30 years: Sturdy, unassuming and unspectacular, expected mainly to keep a stiff upper lip in the huddle, the bangs out of his eyes and the defense and running game out of trouble. And, true, the last guy who ascended to the role promptly led the team to a championship as a first-year starter. But even if A.J. McCarron looks exactly like departed hero Greg McElroy when McElroy took the reins in 2009, it's worth recalling that McElroy a) Had a soon-to-be Heisman winner to hand the ball to, and b) Went through a dreadful midseason stretch that would have sunk the team's title hopes if not for the heroics of the defense and one very large left paw. {YSP:MORE}

Even more noteworthy, McCarron (or redshirt freshman Phillip Sims, his primary competition in the spring) will be without any proven receiver of anywhere near the caliber of Julio Jones, who just went higher in the draft than any other wideout in Alabama history. There are inevitably high hopes for juco transfer Duron Carter, son of ex-NFL great Cris Carter and a former academic casualty at Ohio State, but show me any offense replacing three first-round picks and its starting quarterback, and I'll show you an offense crossing its fingers.

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Stumbling blocks. The usual, highlighted again by trips to Penn State and Florida and a visit from Arkansas in a four-week span in September and November dates with LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn — and, if they survive that, a tough finish in the SEC Championship Game. It's not a schedule that screams "undefeated," but what SEC gauntlet is? Even if there is a stumble along the way (say, at Florida), one of the reasons the SEC has won five straight BCS titles is the deference afforded to one-loss conference champions in the polls — or, in the case of LSU in 2007, a two-loss conference champion — a tendency that's likely to fall in the league's favor again if there are too few unblemished teams to fill both slots in the championship game.

Visions of champions past: Alabama (2009). Not to be all obvious, but it is kind of obvious. The 2009 champs had a rocking, veteran defense; the 2011 team has a rocking, veteran defense. The 2009 champs had a first-rate workhorse (Mark Ingram) and a hyped true freshman (Trent Richardson) running behind a line with three returning starters; the 2011 team has a first-rate workhorse (Richardson) and a hyped true freshman (Dee Hart, or perhaps Brent Calloway) running behind a line with four returning starters. The 2009 champs had a new quarterback who came out of a solid spring competition; the 2011 team has a new quarterback who will come out of a solid spring competition. The head coach and both coordinators are the same.

The best thing about the 2009 champs — and ultimately the biggest difference between them and their statistically superior successors last year — was the defense's ability to make up for lapses on the other side. When the foundering offense managed just two touchdowns over the course of a three-game October funk, the defense obliged by holding Ole Miss, South Carolina and Tennessee to just one TD, and only then when Tennessee took over with a short field following an untimely Ingram fumble. With an interception return against the Gamecocks and a pair of picks that set up automatic field goals at Ole Miss, the '09 D was often responsible for putting as many points on the board when the offense was struggling as it allowed.

Crystal ball says… Precedent notwithstanding, any team breaking in a brand new quarterback comes with a caveat emptor disclaimer as a matter of course, especially when the old one was accompanied on his way out by four first-round picks. But the quarterback is the only potential liability in otherwise proven lineup; even the kicker and punter are back. If there's any team in America that can go all the way with a risk-averse, "within-the-offense" type who does just enough to keep the defense and running game out of trouble, it's obviously Alabama.

The Tide probably will find themselves in a few harrowing moments at the end of low-scoring slugfests, where the defense has to deliver a crucial stop or turnover, a la the 2009 team. But that goes for any serious contender, and none of the Crimson Tide's peers are as likely to face as few of those situations — or to be as equipped to come out of them unscathed — as the most complete top-to-bottom roster in the nation.
out of five

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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