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July 17, 2011

Preseason magazines bullish on Alabama

To whom much is given, much is expected.

Make no mistake about it, when Nick Saban steps to the podium under the glare of SEC Media Days on Friday, the mercurial Alabama head football coach will be barraged with questions and comments about how talented his 2011 Crimson Tide football team is. He will unsuccessfully try to downplay expectations, reminding media of the unsettled quarterback position and the loss of the team's best wide receiver, running back and defensive lineman, while taking them to task with process-oriented talk.

Save your breath, Coach. The cat's already out of the bag.

Stop by any book store and on the racks you'll find a bevy of college football preview magazines touting the wealth of riches at Saban's disposal this season. From Athlon to Phil Steele and every one in between, the periodicals all have one thing in common: They like the Tide in 2011. Alabama is slotted no lower than third in any major magazine's preseason poll.

What has them all so bullish on Alabama?

"The better question is, what's not to like about Alabama?" said Matt Hayes, college football writer for Sporting News.

Indeed, Alabama has stockpiled a dizzying array of talent on both sides of the ball, which leads to the heightened expectations, but particularly it's the defensive side of the ball that has garnered the most respect

"Alabama will dominate on defense," Phil Steele said. "I have them rated as the best defense in the country. They have 10 starters back. They've got my No. 1-rated linebacker group, No. 1-rated defensive back group and No. 4 defensive line. When your weakness is my fourth-ranked defensive line ... I don't think I've ever said that before."

It's not just the brutes on defense that Steele favors. He ranks the Crimson Tide's running backs as second-best in the nation and the offensive line as No. 1.

Steele, whose 328-page, ad-free publication has become a must-read for die-hard college football fans, calls for Alabama to win its second national title in the last three years against Oklahoma in the BCS National Championship Game in New Orleans. Steele's magazine was the only one that did not place the Crimson Tide in last season's national title game.

"The question mark to me is wide receiver," Steele said. "But I think Duron Carter will alleviate that. I like (A.J.) McCarron and (Phillip) Sims to be caretakers on offense. (Trent) Richardson may be an upgrade at running back. There is obviously talent there. The schedule is so much more manageable than last year. The toughest road games are Florida and Penn State. Florida only has 10 starters back and a new coach. I like Alabama's chances of running the table and winning the national title."

Sporting News has UA as its No. 3 overall pick behind Oklahoma and SEC West foe LSU. Many feel that the Nov. 5 clash between the Tide and Tigers could likely decide more than just who wins the West.

Hayes said he isn't as sold as others that Alabama's quarterback situation is reminiscent of 2009, when Greg McElroy trotted out as a first-year starter.

"People continue to say, 'Plug McCarron or Sims in to manage the offense and they'll be fine,' " Hayes said. "While it's true that McElroy didn't have experience, it severely minimizes what he did that season when you call him just a game manager. He won the Auburn game for them. He won the SEC Championship game for them. You can't minimize the fact that these two guys haven't started yet - not only on the field but in terms of leadership, too. That's huge.

"What happens when they're on the road in the SEC for the first time? What happens when they have to face adversity in the third and fourth quarter on the road? That's the key right now. That's such a key position to have such questions."

Personnel issues aside, each prognosticator agrees that the 2011 schedule is much less an obstacle than the prior season's.

Alabama played six games against SEC teams coming off a bye week in 2010, including losses to South Carolina and Auburn. This season, the Tide only faces three games against teams coming off a bye week. Last year, Alabama also faced a stretch where it played at Arkansas, home against Florida and at South Carolina in consecutive weeks. This season, it faces no such three-game stretch.

"The most difficult spot seems to be at Mississippi State and then Auburn in two weeks," Steele said. "There is at Florida and at Ole Miss, but they have Vanderbilt in between. Fewer teams have byes, too. It's a nice advantage to have this season."

Hayes agreed that this year's schedule sets up much better for UA.

"People made fun of the byes last year, but there is no doubt that it played a factor in the season," Hayes said. "It wasn't that the other teams had more preparation time. It was the rest of not having to play. Six teams had one full week of rest of not playing in that meat-grinder league. So it will no doubt be easier this season, but how much easier can anything be when you're still in the SEC?"

Reach Aaron Suttles at aaron.suttles@tuscaloosanews.com or at 205-722-0229. Follow him on Twitter at http://Twitter.com/AaronSuttles


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