Team countdown: No. 3 Alabama

Mike Huguenin
Yahoo Sports

Alabama won the national title for the second time in three seasons in 2011, and the similarities between this season's Alabama team and the one in 2010 is somewhat eerie.

Alabama had a first-year starting quarterback when it won the title last season and in 2009, but it used strong ground attacks and dominating defense to claim the crowns. The Tide lost numerous starters off those defenses, with just two returning in 2010 and only four this season. The Tide runs a 3-4 defense, and its back eight generally is one of the best in the nation. But the '10 team had to rebuild at linebacker and in the secondary, and the same goes for this season's team.

The Tide still has a ton of talent on both sides of the ball. The offensive line will be one of the two or three best in the nation, and junior Eddie Lacy is the latest Alabama tailback who will make the jump from key reserve to focal point of the offense. And while there aren't many starters returning on defense, all the new guys are talented players who just don't have much experience.

One more issue this season's team will have to deal with is a new offensive coordinator. Jim McElwain left to become coach at Colorado State, and Doug Nussmeier was hired away from Washington to replace him. While Nussmeier was coordinator at Washington, he did not call the plays; that was coach Steve Sarkisian's job. Nussmeier did call the plays when he was at Fresno State in 2008, but that is his only season as a play-caller. Needless to say, a defending national champion having an inexperienced play-caller will be an interesting storyline this season.

The particulars

Last season: 12-1 overall, 7-1 in SEC (2nd in SEC West)
Coach: Nick Saban (55-12, 6th season at Alabama; 146-54-1, 17th season overall)
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season): Offense (6) – T D.J. Fluker, T Barrett Jones (moved to C), QB A.J. McCarron, G Anthony Steen, G Chance Warmack, TE Michael Williams. Defense (4) – LB Nico Johnson, SS Robert Lester, E Damion Square, E Jesse Williams (moved to NT). Special teams (2) – P Cody Mandell, K Jeremy Shelley.
Fast fact: Alabama has won 48 games in the past four seasons, the best run in the school's storied history.

Offense

QB A.J. McCarron did a nice job last season, his first as the starter. He completed 66.8 percent of his passes and threw for 2,634 yards, 16 touchdowns and five interceptions. He will be asked to take on a bigger role this fall and that shouldn't be a problem. Two of his interceptions came in the season-opener against Kent State, and he had only one game (against Florida) in which he completed less than half his passes.

Lacy should be a nice security blanket in the backfield. Lacy, a Louisiana native who played high school

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Eddie Lacy is expected to make the jump from key reserve to star feature back for the Tide. (Getty Images)

ball with LSU star FS Eric Reid, is a physical 220-pounder who ran for 674 yards and seven TDs last season. He runs hard and has a burst, too. There is ample depth at tailback, with Jalston Fowler, Dee Hart and T.J. Yeldon also likely to see time. Fowler, a 245-pounder, also could play fullback, which opens up some possibilities for Nussmeier with his run calls.

The receiving corps is underwhelming, though most are solid blockers. The Tide lost its top two wide receivers as well as a starting tight end. The leading returning receiver is junior Kenny Bell, who had two TDs last season. Bell finished with 17 receptions and 255 yards, with almost a quarter of the catches (four) and a bit more than a fifth of the yards (55) coming against North Texas. Junior Kevin Norwood is the second-most experienced receiver (14 career catches), and some youngsters definitely will have an opportunity for playing time, among them sophomore DeAndrew White and true freshmen Amari Cooper, Cyrus Jones and Eddie Williams. Cooper went through spring practice, which could give him an advantage. Williams has spent time practicing at safety as well as wide receiver.

The Tide uses a lot of two-tight end sets (including those with one as an H-back), and Brad Smelley, the best receiver among the tight ends, is gone. Michael Williams returns, but so far, he has been a better blocker than receiver. He will get more receiving chances this fall. Brian Vogler looks to be the best bet to fill Smelley's shoes, though redshirt freshman Brent Calloway (who signed as a running back) has the athleticism to become a dangerous receiver.

There are no concerns about the line. None. Zero. Zilch. In C Barrett Jones, G Chance Warmack and massive T D.J. Fluker, the Tide has three players who seem certain to be drafted no later than the second round in the 2013 NFL draft. Jones is on his third position and he was an All-American at the first two – at guard in 2010 and at tackle last season, when he won the Outland Trophy. He moved to center during spring drills and adapted quickly. Fluker is relatively svelte at 6 feet 6 and 335 pounds; he weighed upward of 350 pounds as a high school senior. He is heading into his third season as the Tide's starting right tackle and is an absolute road-grader as a run blocker. Warmack is the last member of the line's "holy trinity." He frequently is overlooked, but will be a three-year starter and also is a road-grader as a run blocker.

The fourth returning starter is G Anthony Steen, another physical specimen. The new starter at left tackle is expected to be sophomore Cyrus Kouandjio, a former five-star recruit from the Baltimore area. He played well as a true freshman last season before blowing out his knee in October. He should be 100 percent by the start of the season. While the starting five should be excellent, there is no experienced depth.

Defense

The Tide's 3-4 set took a hit with the loss of stud LBs Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw, not to mention CB Dre Kirkpatrick and FS Mark Barron, but this still will be a good unit.

Alabama usually doesn't have many big names up front, and that's the case again. Thing is, while there are no big names, there are big bodies and those big-bodied dudes do exactly what they're supposed to do, which is muck up things in the middle of the line. There are two returning starters in senior DE Damion Square and senior NT Jesse Williams, an Australian who started at end last season after transferring from junior college. Square had one sack, but his value comes as a run-stuffer. Williams is incredibly strong (a 600-pound bench press) and should be a better fit at nose tackle than he was at end. The new starter at end should be junior Ed Stinson, who arrived at Alabama as a linebacker but has added almost 60 pounds since and will play at 285 this fall. Senior Quinton Dial could beat out Stinson; at the least, he will play a lot. Good things also are expected from sophomore backups Brandon Ivory (nose tackle) and Jeoffrey Pagan (end).

Only one starting linebacker returns, senior Nico Johnson, but while this season's group won't be nearly as experienced as last season's, it could end up being more athletic. There is a ton of depth. Johnson, junior C.J. Mosley and sophomore Trey DePriest are competing for the two jobs inside, while sophomores Adrian Hubbard and Xzavier Dickson and junior Jonathan Atchison are vying for the starting spots on the outside.

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S Robert Lester is the only returning starter in the secondary for the Tide. (Getty Images)

Hubbard, particularly, is one to watch. He has battled health problems, but is a freakish athlete and could become an elite pass rusher.

The secondary is the one true trouble spot on the team. The Tide lost three starters and each was drafted, with two (Barron and Kirkpatrick) going in the first round.

Senior S Robert Lester was excellent in 2010 but struggled at times in 2011, and he is the lone returning starter. He has played both safety spots and is set to be a three-year starter. Junior CB Dee Milliner is the other sure starter. He was a full-time starter in 2010 as a true freshman but saw less time last fall; he has four picks and 16 pass breakups in his career.

The new starters seem likely to be either JC transfer Deion Belue or junior John Fulton at the corner opposite Milliner, and one of two sophomores, Vinnie Sunseri or Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix, at the other safety spot. Sunseri is the son of former Tide linebacker coach Sal Sunseri, who is the new coordinator at Tennessee. Clinton-Dix, who goes by "HaHa," is a good athlete with a higher upside than Sunseri. Depth at corner is an issue.

Special teams

K Jeremy Shelley and P Cody Mandell return. Shelley does not have a strong leg, but did convert 21-of-27 chances last season. He was just 2-of-6 from beyond 40 yards and his longest conversion was a 44-yarder. Mandell averaged 39.3 yards, but almost half his punts (17 of 39) resulted in fair catches.

The Tide needs a new return man after the graduation of WR Marquis Maze. Milliner, Hart, White and sophomore WR Christion Jones are possibilities.

Punt coverage was a positive for the Tide last season, but the kickoff coverage needs to improve. Alabama gave up two kick-return TDs.

Schedule

We'll know a lot about the Tide early. Alabama opens its season in the nation's best non-conference game, against Michigan in Arlington, Texas. Game 2 is a gimme putt against Western Kentucky, but the Tide visits Arkansas on Sept. 15 in a huge game in the SEC West (and national title) race.

There's a tough stretch in late October/early November in which the Tide play three of four on the road, with the last of those contests a night game in Baton Rouge against LSU.

The season ends with three consecutive home games, including the finale against archrival Auburn.

Overview

This team has a ton of talent and a great staff, but it also has some flaws, most notably at wide receiver and in the secondary.

The 2010 team followed up the '09 national title by losing three conference games and finishing 10-3. This squad is unlikely to lose three league games and if the Tide doesn't win at least 10, it will be a disappointing campaign. An 11- or 12-win season looms, but back-to-back national titles are too much to hope for.

The recruiting side

Average recruiting ranking for past five years: 2nd nationally
The buzz: The Crimson Tide continued its recruiting dominance with the top class in the nation this past cycle. The class was led by a trio of five-star prospects. Yeldon, an in-state prospect, flipped from Auburn to Alabama late in the process. S Landon Collins, like Lacy from Geismar (La.) Dutchtown, spurned LSU for Alabama, angering his mother during his televised commitment at the Under Armour All-America Game. The other five-star signee is ATH Eddie Williams from Florida. The class also included such four-star prospects as WRs Cooper and Chris Black and LB Ryan Anderson. – Rivals.com

Breakthrough player

LB Adrian Hubbard. Hubbard, a third-year sophomore, saw limited action in 2011, appearing in eight games and making nine stops. His role this season is expected to be vastly increased after he turned in an impressive performance in spring practice. Still unclear is whether he will take over for Upshaw as the team's rush linebacker. He has the size (6-6/250) and athleticism to make a significant impact on a young but talented UA defense. If he is indeed tabbed for Upshaw's "Jack" linebacker spot, look for him to lead the team in sacks. – Chase Goodbread, TideSports.com

For more on Alabama throughout the season, check out TideSports.com

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