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Trent Richardson is gone, but Eddie Lacy leads a deep Alabama backfield.
The Alabama Crimson Tide check in at No. 3 in Athlon's college football 2012 top 25 countdown. Here's a look at our predictions for the most valuable players, games to watch, breakout candidates and other key categories for 2012.
Offensive MVP: AJ McCarron, QB
A case could be made that center Barrett Jones deserves this honor, but McCarron’s development is the key to Alabama’s chances at a repeat. The junior didn’t throw for a touchdown pass in the national championship game against LSU, but his play was the difference in the game. New coordinator Doug Nussmeier should provide a seamless transition from Jim McElwain, and Alabama is expected to allow McCarron to throw more in 2012. Although the Crimson Tide is replacing some key players from last year’s team, a more experienced and poised McCarron will allow Alabama to remain in the mix for the national title.
Upset Alert: at Arkansas (Sept. 15)
It wouldn’t be a shock to see Arkansas knock off Alabama this season, but the Crimson Tide should be favored to win. Alabama won five in a row over the Razorbacks, including a 38-14 victory in Tuscaloosa last season. Arkansas is still reeling from the sudden departure of coach Bobby Petrino, but the offense is loaded with playmakers, including quarterback Tyler Wilson and running back Knile Davis. With several new faces stepping into playing time on the Crimson Tide’s defense, it will be put to the test early against Arkansas’ high-powered offense.
Biggest Game: at LSU (Nov. 3)
These two teams split the two meetings last season, but Alabama won the most important matchup in the national title game in New Orleans. A berth in the SEC title could be on the line in this one, as the Crimson Tide and Tigers are expected to be the teams to beat in the West Division. Alabama has not won in Baton Rouge since 2008 and is 1-2 in its last three matchups against LSU. The loser of this game could still sneak into the national title game again, but the winner will take a significant step toward finishing the regular season as the No. 1 team.
Defensive MVP: Nico Johnson, LB
There’s really not a clear candidate to take this honor, but Johnson’s performance will be critical to the success of Alabama’s defense. Matching last season’s statistics are probably out of the question, but there’s enough talent to remain among the top 10 nationally. Rolando McClain and Dont’a Hightower were both first-round picks and the torch has been passed to Johnson to anchor the linebacking corps in 2012. With seven new starters on defense, the senior’s experience in the scheme will be valuable to getting everyone lined up properly and ready to attack opposing offenses this season.
Breakout Players: Adrian Hubbard, Trey DePriest and Xzavier Dickson
Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley are the veteran leaders in the linebacking corps, but Hubbard, DePriest and Dickson will be three potential breakout candidates. DePriest played in all 13 contests last season and recorded 14 stops. Hubbard and Dickson played sparingly last year, but were ranked among the top 100 players in their recruiting class. DePriest will anchor one of the inside spots, while Hubbard and Dickson will play off the edge and help to replace the pass rush void vacated by Courtney Upshaw.
Unsung Hero: Chance Warmack, OG
Those familiar with the SEC certainly know about center Barrett Jones, but Warmack has quietly emerged as one of the conference’s top linemen. He has 26 consecutive starts, and the SEC coaches selected him as a second-team all-conference lineman last year. Right tackle D.J. Fluker should be in for a breakout year, but Warmack’s steady play on the interior should not be overlooked.
Freshman to Watch: T.J. Yeldon, RB
Trent Richardson will be missed, but Alabama’s rushing attack will remain one of the best in college football. Eddie Lacy will start and should rush for over 1,000 yards. However, there’s no shortage of depth, as redshirt freshman Dee Hart is poised to become a change-of-pace threat, and Yeldon is ready to contribute after a strong performance in the spring game. Although he may not see 100-200 carries, Yeldon should be a factor in Alabama’s rushing attack.
Comeback Player: Dee Hart, RB
Eddie Lacy will be the team’s No. 1 back, but expect Hart to play a large role in the offense this year. He was supposed to play in a change-of-pace role last season, but suffered a torn ACL in summer workouts and was sidelined for the entire 2011 campaign. Hart probably won’t accumulate 150 carries, but will be a weapon on third downs and could see some time on special teams.
Newcomer to Watch: Deion Belue/Travell Dixon, CB
Alabama doesn’t recruit many junior college prospects, and when it does, those players are brought in to play right away. Dee Milliner and John Fulton appear to be locked into the two starting cornerback spots, but Belue and Dixon will help to fill out the depth and contribute significant snaps in the nickel position. Both players ranked among the top 10 junior college prospects by one service, so talent isn’t an issue; however, adapting to playing in the SEC might be.
Position Battle: Wide Receivers
Alabama still has a few positions up for grabs in the fall and some incoming freshmen could figure into the mix. The receiving corps is in flux, as the Crimson Tide must replace Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks. Although both players will be missed, the new receivers could be more athletic than the previous group. Kenny Bell, Kevin Norwood, Christion Jones and DeAndrew White hold an edge to be the top four receivers, but will face a battle for playing time with freshmen Chris Black, Amari Cooper, Marvin Shinn and Eddie Williams. This group lacks senior leadership, but plenty of promising talent for quarterback AJ McCarron to target.
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