By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
After falling short in the first meeting against LSU, Alabama left no doubt in New Orleans. The Crimson Tide dominated the Tigers to win their second national title in three seasons. After winning the 2009 title, Alabama followed it up with a 10-3 record. Will the Crimson Tide follow up another championship with a three-loss record or a national title? The pieces are in place for another run, but Alabama will have some key losses to replace.
Key players coming back: QB AJ McCarron, RB Eddie Lacy, RB Dee Hart, OL Barrett Jones, OG Chance Warmack, RT D.J. Fluker, DE Damion Square, LB Nico Johnson, LB C.J. Mosley, LB Trey DePriest, CB Dee Milliner, S Vinnie Sunseri
Seniors departing: WR Marquis Maze, OG Alfred McCullough, C William Vlachos, NG Josh Chapman, LB Courtney Upshaw, CB DeQuan Menzie, S Mark Barron
Could Leave Early for NFL Draft: RB Trent Richardson, DE Jesse Williams, LB Dont’a Hightower, CB Dre Kirkpatrick, S Robert Lester
Top Incoming Recruits
Offense Preview for 2012
Running back Trent Richardson has likely played his last game for Alabama, but it’s not all bad news for the offense. Backup Eddie Lacy averaged 7.5 yards per touch on 84 carries this year and will take on a bigger role in the backfield if Richardson departs for the NFL. Jalston Fowler also returns, while talented freshman Dee Hart will be healthy after suffering a torn ACL last summer. Although Lacy, Fowler and Hart won’t individually match Richardson’s rushing totals, the trio should generate plenty of production at running back.
Quarterback AJ McCarron had a solid debut season as the starter, and the experience from starting all 13 games this year should make him a better player in 2012. However, he will have a new coordinator, as Jim McElwain is leaving to be the head coach at Colorado State. McCarron will have to work with a revamped group of receivers, as Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks have finished their eligibility. Tight end Brad Smelley has also played his last down in an Alabama uniform. Expect Kenny Bell, DeAndrew White and tight end Michael Williams to emerge as the top veteran targets next year. With Richardson all but certain to turn pro, McCarron will be expected to carry more of the offensive workload next year.
The offensive line returns three starters, including likely 2012 All-American Barrett Jones. With William Vlachos departing, Alabama may move Jones to center in spring practice. Right tackle D.J. Fluker and left guard Chance Warmack also return and both should contend for All-SEC honors.
Defense Preview for 2012
Replacing a handful of key starters from one of the top defenses in college football won’t be an easy task for coach Nick Saban and coordinator Kirby Smart. However, with another elite recruiting class stepping onto campus, don’t expect a huge drop in production next year.
In any 3-4 defense, much of the success starts with the nose guard and with the linebacking corps. And that’s where the Crimson Tide will be breaking in new starters next year. Nose guard Jose Chapman has finished his eligibility and there’s no clear backup on the roster. End Jesse Williams saw some snaps in the middle this season, but may enter the NFL Draft.
With Dont’a Hightower expected to leave for the NFL, Alabama could be breaking in three new starters in the linebacking corps. Seniors Jerrell Harris and Courtney Upshaw have played their final game, with Upshaw the bigger loss. Nico Johnson finished fourth on the team in tackles and will be counted on to provide leadership as a senior next year. The linebacking corps isn’t short on upcoming talent, as Trey DePriest, Adrian Hubbard, C.J. Mosley, Tana Patrick and Xzavier Dickson were all highly-regarded recruits.
The secondary will also field some heavy losses, as it will likely have three new starters next year. Cornerback DeQuan Menzie and safety Mark Barron will depart, while cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick is expected to enter the NFL Draft. Safety Robert Lester will be expected to anchor the secondary next season, while Dee Milliner and John Fulton step into bigger roles at cornerback. Vinnie Sunseri had a solid freshman year and will be counted upon even more in 2012.
2012 Schedule Breakdown
With the SEC moving to 14 teams next year, the conference schedule isn’t going to get any easier. Alabama kicks off SEC play at Arkansas and also has road trips against Missouri, Tennessee and LSU next year. The Crimson Tide will host Texas A&M, Auburn, Mississippi State and Ole Miss in conference play in 2012.
With LSU and Alabama expected to be the top two teams in the SEC West, the division could be decided on Nov. 3 when they meet in Baton Rouge. The conference opener against Arkansas on Sept. 15 won’t be easy either.
Alabama opens the season with a neutral site matchup (Cowboys Stadium) against Michigan. The Wolverines are expected to be a top 15 team next season, but the Crimson Tide should be favored to win. The rest of the non-conference schedule is very manageable, with Western Kentucky, FAU and Western Carolina all visiting Tuscaloosa.
Can Alabama Play for the National Title Next Year?
Despite the key losses, the Crimson Tide will be among the top five teams and one of the preseason picks to win the national title next season. Nick Saban continues to bring in and develop elite talent in Tuscaloosa, which will ensure this team won’t slip too far. AJ McCarron’s development at quarterback should help soften the blow of Trent Richardson departing for the NFL Draft, while the offensive line remains in good shape. The defense will have a handful of new faces, but shouldn’t suffer a complete collapse.
Although the personnel losses are crucial, the schedule has some landmines that could deter another run at the national title. The Crimson Tide will have to go on the road to face two likely top 10 teams – Arkansas and LSU – and open the season with a dangerous Michigan team.
Although Alabama survived a loss to LSU to play for the national title in 2011, the loser of next year's game might not get the same opportunity.