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Spring football 25: Alabama Crimson Tide

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Dr. Saturday

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(USA Today Sports Images)

Dr. Saturday will be looking at the 25 most interesting teams headed into spring football through March, examining which programs have the biggest questions, the most expectations and the best storylines. This isn’t the 25 best going into the spring, just the 25 we’re keeping the closest eye on. Previously: Virginia Tech

ALABAMA

What happened in 2012
Alabama took another huge step towards establishing itself as one of the greatest (or is it the greatest already?) dynasties in college football history.

The Crimson Tide won their third national title in four years, becoming just the second team to win three AP national championships in four years. They joined Notre Dame, which won three from 1946-49. Nebraska also won three titles from 1994-97, but the last one was split, with the Cornhuskers finishing first in the coaches poll. Those are the only teams since college football started using the polls in 1936 to win three titles in four years.

While Alabama was at times absolutely dominant in 2012, its title also showed that luck can sometimes play a role. The Crimson Tide were on the outside looking in after a loss at home to Texas A&M. Then on one crazy evening, Stanford beat Oregon and Baylor beat Kansas State, giving Alabama a second chance to play for the BCS title. Georgia fell a few yards short to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game and the Crimson Tide played (and steamrolled) Notre Dame for the title. Alabama was fully deserving, but it also should be grateful for the late-season upsets by Baylor and Stanford.

Alabama fielded a great team in 2012, which should be no surprise. The Crimson Tide is set to do the same again this year.

What makes them interesting in 2013

The history Alabama is chasing is obvious, but let's boil it down to one game: Sept. 14 at Texas A&M. Who else gets the feeling that the moment Nick Saban landed in Tuscaloosa after flying home from the BCS Championship Game, he went right to his office to break down film on Johnny Manziel?

Last year, Manziel secured his Heisman Trophy with a great performance in a shocking win at Alabama. This time the Aggies will be at home, but Alabama will be out for revenge and Saban will have nine months to prepare. No offense to Virginia Tech, which is no pushover as a Week 1 opponent, but the game at Texas A&M could ultimately determine if Alabama does play for another national title in January of 2014.

The rest of the road slate is very manageable for Alabama (at Kentucky, at Mississippi State, at Auburn) and LSU, which is usually Alabama's toughest test, comes to Tuscaloosa on Nov. 9 with a roster that lost a lot of talent from last year.

So what makes the Crimson Tide interesting? Alabama at Texas A&M on Sept. 14. Can't wait.

What needs to happen this spring
Championship teams sometimes have to deal with motivation concerns, but that shouldn't be a problem for Alabama given the history it is chasing and having Saban in charge. Roster turnover is also generally an issue, and while Alabama has that too, everyone knows they'll plug in talented players and be just fine. And there isn't too much turnover. Phil Steele's list of returning starters in college football has Alabama in the middle of the pack with 13, six on offense and seven on defense. Alabama loses some very good players, but many return.

[Also: Will QB Matt Barkley get drafted in the first round?]

Perhaps what Saban has to deal with most is off-field issues with his team. He spoke openly about that, according to TideSports.com. The Tide had to kick off four players who were arrested on felony charges this offseason, and there have been other concerns for Saban.

"Until we got into the offseason program and sort of got a handle on things, we did not respond as well as we'd like with this group. But I think they've made a tremendous amount of improvement," Saban said, according to TideSports.com. "I think we had more guys miss class, more issues, the first behavioral issues we've had with the guys who got in trouble that we've had in five and a half years. A lot of little loose-ended things. When guys have entitlement, you see a little slippage."

Gamechangers
The offensive trio of quarterback A.J. McCarron, running back T.J. Yeldon and receiver Amari Cooper are tough to stop. McCarron has now quarterbacked two national title teams. Yeldon and Cooper were instant sensations as freshmen. Yeldon gained 1,108 yards

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Alabama WR Amari Cooper (USA Today Sports Images)

and 12 touchdowns despite splitting time with Eddie Lacy, and Cooper had 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns. This being Alabama, there's more than just those three playmakers on the roster. But it's hard to find a better trio in college football.

Seven starters return from a defense that allowed just 10.9 points per game, and somehow C.J. Mosley was one of them. Mosley could have gone to the NFL draft and been a clear first-round pick, but decided to stay instead. That's a great boost for Alabama. Mosley had 107 tackles last year. Nobody else on the Crimson Tide defense had more than 59. South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney is the best returning defensive player in the nation, but Mosley might not be far behind.

Wild cards
What made Alabama really unique in 2012 was having one of the best offensive lines we've seen in college football. That group had it all. Tackle D.J. Fluker and guard Chance Warmack could go in the first round of next month's NFL draft, and center Barrett Jones – who should also go pretty early in the draft – might have had the best college career of the whole group. When you lose three great players off a line like that, there will be some adjustment period.

Left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and right guard Anthony Steen are the returners (and also have a good chance to be high draft picks in the future ... told you this group was one of the best we've seen), so there is a foundation. In addition to three new starters, the offensive line has a new coach in Mario Cristobal, formerly the head coach at Florida International. This group should be fine, but unlike the unbelievable offensive line of 2012, there are a few questions to answer.

Key games
Aug. 31 vs. Virginia Tech at Atlanta
Sept. 14 at Texas A&M
Sept. 28 vs. Ole Miss
Oct. 19 vs. Arkansas
Nov. 9 vs. LSU

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Check out Dr. Saturday's other spring previews: Notre Dame, Texas, Oklahoma, Stanford, South Carolina , Baylor, Ohio State, Texas A&M, Clemson, West Virginia, Missouri , Tulsa, Arkansas, LSU, Ole Miss, Louisville, Northern Illinois, USC, Florida State, Kansas State, Texas Tech, Western Kentucky, Oregon.

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