2011 record: 12-1 overall, 7-1 in SEC (2nd in West)
2011 postseason: BcS title game (21-0 win over LSU)
2011 final AP/coaches’ ranking: No. 1/No. 1
Head coach: Nick Saban (146-56-1 overall; 55-12 in five seasons at Alabama)
Offensive coordinator: Doug Nussmeier (first season)
2011 offensive rankings: No. 16 rushing offense (214.5 ypg); 69th passing offense (215.1 ypg); 31st total offense (429.6 ypg); No. 20 scoring offense (34.8 ppg)
Returning offensive starters: seven
Defensive coordinator: Kirby Smart (sixth season at Alabama, fifth as DC)
2011 defensive rankings: No. 1 rushing defense (72.1 ypg); No. 1 passing defense (111.5 ypg); No. 1 total defense (183.6 ypg); No. 1 scoring defense (8.1 ppg)
Returning defensive starters: four
Location: Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Stadium: Bryant-Denny Stadium (101,821; grass)
Last league title: 2009
2011 statistics: [view]
Nick Saban’s a lot of things (insert various one-liners at your leisure), but he’s not someone who allows himself, his coaching staff or his players to make the same mistake again. Coming off its BcS title following the 2009 regular season, the Tide consistently stubbed its toe on the way to a three-loss post-crystal season in 2010. Coming off its second title in three years, Saban’s determined to keep a repeat of 2010 from happening again in 2012. Could it happen again? Of course, anything’s possible. But, in the case, I wouldn’t bet on history repeating itself.
If the Tide does party like it’s 2010, however, it will likely be because of a defense that led the country in nearly every major statistical in the run to another BcS title last season. Gone from that suffocating defense are seven starters, including its top three tacklers and four of the top five total; its top two tackles-for-loss producers; and two of the three leaders in sacks. Certainly, thanks to the bounty that is recruiting, there is plenty of on-paper talent that can fill the depth chart. How fast those replacements can actually fill the sizable shoes left in the wake of departures, though, will determine whether a third title in four years is in the offing.
The defense wasn’t the only side of the ball impacted by departures. The loss of running back Trent Richardson will certainly affect an offense that will be under the direction of a new coordinator — former Washington OC Doug Nussmeier. While there’s plenty of talent in the backfield — starter Eddie Lacy and backups Jalston Fowler, Dee Hart and T.J. Yeldon — the addition of the pass-leaning Nussmeier could be a signal that Saban is ready to put more responsibility on the right shoulder of AJ McCarron. The starting quarterback proved last season that he was more than capable of handling the responsibilities in a balanced offensive attack; if called upon — and that’s a big coaching if right now — can he handle a bigger responsibility in the passing game? Stay tuned …
Make-or-break game: at LSU, Nov. 3
No offense to Arkansas or new SEC member Missouri or even non-conference foe Michigan, the game on both of these team’s schedules this season is a rematch of the BcS title game. And the field-goal-laden regular season game that cost the Tide a shot at an SEC title. Much like with the USC-Oregon game the same day, this contest has the potential to feature a pair of unbeaten, Top 5 teams if the schedule plays out as expected, although in this case it will likely determine which team represents its division in the conference championship game. The bad news for the Tide is the fact that they will have to travel to Death Valley, a place where the Tide has won just once in its last four attempts.
Heisman hopeful: quarterback AJ McCarron
Should Saban decide to put more emphasis on the passing game, and should the Tide perform up to its preseason expectations, McCarron should at least merit considerations on the fringes of the Heisman discussion early on in the season. In his first season as a starter last year McCarron completed nearly 67 percent of his passes, throwing for over 2,600 yards, 16 touchdowns and just five interceptions, finishing third in the SEC in passing efficiency. With even a slight bump statistically, McCarron will likely find himself in the Heisman mix.