Can the Tide do this in New Orleans this season?

Alabama fans are excited at the potential for another national championship this season.  Make no mistake, the potential is absolutely there.  No team in the country has recruited quite as well as Alabama over the past four seasons. Few teams are as experienced.  Alabama has the benefit of being the best three loss team of the past five years, and faces a significantly improved schedule — half as many teams coming off a bye, LSU and Arkansas both come to Tuscaloosa, South Carolina is traded for Vanderbilt, and Auburn goes from one of the most veteran teams in the league  to the least experienced in the country.

But …

No one is going to just hand Alabama the title.  And this team isn’t perfect.  Here are a few of the issues the Tide will need to overcome if they’re going to claim number 14.

  • The absence of Julio Jones on non-passing downs.  There is no question that Julio was absolutely clutch when the team needed a first down, and all the focus has been on that this off-season, but you could put together a pretty solid highlight film just of the blocks he threw in the run game and no receiver has shown the ability to do that with the consistency and skill that Jones did.  One of the things that separates Trent Richardson from the rest of the pack of elite running backs in the SEC is his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.  Watch replays of the last two seasons, and the swing pass behind Jones was a staple of the base offense.  Can that be as successful without him clearing the path?  Coach McElwain was never shy about making tight ends and receivers practically interchangeable in certain formations.  My guess is that Michael Willams will be moved out on those downs to run lead block.
  • The perilous lack of depth at running back.  In some ways, Alabama’s reputation as a run-first team is a bit overblown.  Alabama ran the ball 56% of the time, but how much of that was in garbage time?  Consider this:  Greg McElroy started all 13 games, but was only still in the game in the fourth quarter six times.  Still, of the top five ball carriers last season, only two are still on the team and one of those two is currently injured and will miss time this fall.  Of the next five, all are still on the team, but only one carried the ball more than ten times (a whopping 14 for Jalston Fowler), two are wide receivers, and two are walk-ons who only got the ball late in the fourth quarter in blowouts.  There’s not a lot of depth coming in with this class, either.  Dee Hart — the promising freshman who impressed this Spring — will miss all the season with a knee injury.  Brent Calloway — the only other running back in the class was signed to play linebacker — is still in clearinghouse limbo and may not even qualify for this season.  Alabama in the Nick Saban era has always used at least three running backs (last season, the Tide was the only SEC team to have three RBs in the top 20 in the league in yards per game).  This season, three backs is all the Tide has, period.  Fowler is a legitimate talent and could be more productive than Eddie Lacy was last season in that third back role.  But the Tide needs him in the third back role.  Last season saw both Richardson and Mark Ingram miss games due to injury.  There’s no room for that this year.
  • Will Dre Kirkpatrick play as well as the legend of Dre Kirkpatrick?  Kirkpatrick is a fantastic talent, probably the best shutdown corner in man coverage in the country.  He adjusts well to the ball in the air. He sticks well to his man in one on one coverage.  He has received a lot of preseason recognition for his skills, but perhaps a disproportionate amount.  He seems to get lost in zone coverage.  He’s not physical enough off the line.  He’s too in love with the big play (see: botched fumble recovery against Penn State).  If DeQuan Menzie plays up to the level of the compliments he’s received from Coach Saban this spring, Kirkpatrick is going to see a lot of passes headed in his direction this season.  He’s going to need to be a lot more disciplined, and a lot more physical if he is going to merit the hype he’s already received, and the defense needs him to merit it because …
  • Where the heck is the pass rush?  For four seasons it’s been said that rushing the passer is an emphasis of this defense, but where’s the evidence?  Last season, the Tide was eleventh in the SEC in tackles for loss and only sixth in sacks.  A lot of that can be attributed to Courtney Upshaw and Marcel Dareus both playing hurt for much of the season, and Dont’a Hightower was never at 100%.  Plus, that 11th place ranking is a bit deceptive.  In September versus non-conference cupcakes, the damage was two-fold:  first, opposing teams used a heavy assault of quick passes and screens to scheme around the pass rush; secondly the Tide did not blitz heavily in those games if at all.  Still, when considering only SEC games, Alabama was a paltry ninth.  The story this year doesn’t get better from a personnel standpoint.  Upshaw and Hightower are both now healthy and it should show on the field, but the Tide’s ability to penetrate the backfield is heavily dependent on the anchor in the middle, a position that’s been missing it’s oomph since Terrence Cody moved to Baltimore.  Josh Chapman is strong, and he’s reliable as a run-stopping NG, but he hasn’t been dominant.  Australian import Jesse Williams has the physical build to be a monster in the middle but he’s a raw talent who is going to have to learn technique in a hurry.  By the end of spring, all of the Cody comparisons had stopped.  There simply isn’t a player on the roster at the moment who has demonstrated he can replace Dareus.  Hopefully Quinton Dial or Damion Square can grow into that player, but they haven’t shown it yet.
The ray of sunshine in all of this is that Alabama is not in a unique position with these questions.  Every team has there own set of issues they’ll need to address.  Every team has stars it has to replace, but Alabama’s condition is exaggerated because of the quality of those stars.  The thing is, the new players don’t have to be better than the players they’re replacing.  They just have to be better than the man across from them.  This team has the ability across the board to do that.  Whether they play to that ability every game — every down — remains to be seen.
Roll Tide.