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January 3, 2009

The Nickel: Utah

NEW ORLEANS - Regardless of what happens in the BCS Championship Game next Thursday night, the Oklahoma Sooners' bowl season has been made. In taking out Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, unbeaten Utah made sure of that.

When talking about BCS-busting wins in the future, fans and media will no longer refer to Boise State's improbable win over the Sooners in the Fiesta Bowl two years ago.

Nope, it's Alabama that will now sport the mantle of slain Goliath. And unlike Oklahoma, the lethargic, Big 10-looking Tide wasn't even able to make for a good finish.

This had little to do with the suspension of the Tide's best player or rumblings of at least one upcoming departure from Nick Saban's staff. No, this was about one team looking to make a point and another team looking as ragged for a quarter as any we've seen in the Saban era at Alabama.

Granted, not having Andre Smith at left tackle obviously made things difficult for the offense. And the move of Mike Johnson to Smith's spot resulted in a performance similar to what we saw against Tulane back in September. Losing Johnson to injury in the first quarter only added to the wave of woes coming fast and furious at the Tide's shuffled front five.

The last time I checked, though, neither Smith nor Johnson play both ways. And it was the defense that had no answers when stops were needed most.

Giving up long pass plays in spite of excellent coverage is one thing. Repeatedly not knowing where to line up against an offense that was in hurry-up mode from the time it stepped off the bus is an entirely different matter. And believe me, nothing strikes to Saban's core like the mental vacations we saw from his defense in the first few series Friday night.

He'd rather suffer through a five-hour round at the SEC Football Media Days golf outing than endure the lapses he witnessed in a venue that had previously been home to his greatest coaching conquests. These were the kind of mistakes that Alabama had sidestepped for much of the 2008 season. They were the kind that put an offense that will never be described as versatile -- much less dynamic -- in a no-win situation.

Ultimately, teams that don't bring intensity to the BCS stage, better bring a Superdome-sized vat of difference makers. Alabama didn't bring much of the former and is still trying to accrue the latter.

Five questions for the Tide in the offseason

Who will replace John Parker Wilson at quarterback?

What we know: A less-than-stellar performance in his final game ensures that Wilson's lasting UA legacy will forever be up for debate.

Will Tide fans choose to ignore a pair of critical first-quarter mistakes -- a floater that was intercepted followed by an overthrow of an end zone-bound Nikita Stover -- that reeked of 2007 missteps? Or will they focus more on Wilson's near-flawless performances against Tennessee in 2007 and Georgia in 2008?

In the years immediately following his departure, reviews of Wilson's run behind center will be mixed. But with his name on virtually every career UA passing record -- not to mention wins over Tennessee (twice), Georgia, LSU and Auburn on his resume -- look for Wilson to eventually settle in somewhere near the intersection of Brodie Croyle Boulevard and Gary Hollingsworth Pass.

What we'll learn between now and Sept. 5: The checklist for playing quarterback at Alabama isn't long. Essentially, it consists of the following: 1.) Avoid negative plays and 2.) capitalize on opportunities produced by the running game.

The big question: Can a classic "game manager" not named Jay Barker lead UA to SEC and national crowns? If you put enough Julio Joneses around him, the answer is yes. But just one Julio won't be enough.

The respective raps on Greg McElroy, who will likely enter spring drills as the guy at the top of the "organizational chart", and Star Jackson are at opposite ends of the spectrum.

McElroy appears comfortable running the offense, but is he physically capable of producing more than routine plays? Jackson, on the other hand, looks to have SEC goods. But where does he sit in terms of running an offense that is a good bit different than the one he directed in high school?

Again, it all goes back to trust. Opening the season against a defense like the one Virginia Tech will field in the Georgia Dome makes it difficult to go against the guy with the most reps of the projected candidates. That's McElroy.

What will the offensive line look like in 2009?

What we know: If the Sugar Bowl was the movie trailer for next season, let's hope an offseason re-write will improve the final cut. As for Smith, I won't be occupying a seat on the don't stop believing train when projecting his future. For me, it's as simple as this: If the big man was a top five pick before his suspension, he's still one today. In other words, I envision Andre 3000 playing left tackle for Alabama next season before Andre 71.

What we'll learn between now and Sept. 5: Beyond Johnson and Drew Davis, good luck projecting a starting five for Virginia Tech. Once you get past Smith, the Tide doesn't have a legitimate left tackle on the roster. That's why the job may fall to a true freshman -- D.J. Fluker -- or a junior college transfer -- James Carpenter -- to fill the void created by Smith's expected move to the NFL.

As for center, take your choice of Antoine Caldwell successors from a candidate list that includes William Vlachos, Evan Cardwell and a host of others. Right guard? Could be David Ross, Alfred McCullough, Brian Motley or perhaps even Boswell, who enters the offseason as one of this unit's top five overall players.

Heading into spring, I think it will look like this (from left to right): D. Davis, M. Johnson, Vlachos, Ross and Boswell. The first group, however, will likely have a vastly different look by the end of fall camp.

Will additional playmakers emerge on the offensive side of the ball?

What we know: An impressive stable of returning backs led by Glen Coffee -- assuming his request for draft status information from the NFL is nothing more than a progress report -- Mark Ingram and Roy Upchurch -- assuming all goes well with his return from neck surgery -- will be a strength of the offense.

What we'll learn between now and Sept. 5: The Tide has a No. 1 receiver in Jones and a gaggle of middle-of-the-rotation guys behind him.

Using Saban's 2003 LSU team as a manual for what the Tide offense hopes to be when it grows up, quarterback Matt Mauck tossed 28 touchdown passes on the way to the BCS title that year. Of course, the feat was made all the easier by a receiving corps headlined by Michael Clayton, Devery Henderson and Skyler Green and supplemented by youngsters like Craig Davis and Dwayne Bowe.

That's USC depth.

Will additional playmakers emerge on the defensive side of the ball?

What we know: The performance against Utah not withstanding, a solid collection of personnel buoyed by an outstanding coaching staff offered up a season's worth of statistics beyond its individual capabilities.

What we'll learn between now and Sept. 5: The need for a dominant pass rusher has been talked about for three seasons. And competition at corner in the spring shouldn't be limited to just the third and fourth spots.

The middle of the defense, even with Rashad Johnson's departure, will be very good. But playmakers -- from defensive end to outside linebacker to corner -- are still needed on the perimeter. Youngsters like outside linebackers Jerrell Harris and Courtney Upshaw and corner Robby Green could offer upgrades at some of those positions.

The possibilities with Barron are intriguing because he's talented enough to play just about anywhere in the secondary. He's an obvious choice when looking at replacements for Johnson at safety. But he could also man the star position, which would allow Javier Arenas to play the left corner spot on more of an every-down basis.

How much turnover will the coaching staff undergo?

What we know: Attrition in the NFL era of college football will not be limited to just the players. With movement at the head coaching position at an all-time high on the college level, I'm tempted to crank up a temp agency for assistant coaches.

In his brief time in Tuscaloosa, defensive assistant Kevin Steele has been linked to more job openings than Bill Cowher. While some of that has to do with Steele's sterling reputation as both a coach and a recruiter, it makes one wonder if he's ever got around to unpacking.

What we'll learn between now and Sept. 5: If Will Muschamp is the coach in waiting at Texas, then Kirby Smart is Will Muschamp in waiting. From their playing careers as safeties at Georgia to their apprenticeships under Saban, they are essentially the same guy.

As for a potential replacement for Steele if he does indeed move on to Clemson, with Smart as defensive coordinator there isn't the need to bring in an assistant with an "executive" title. It could be as simple as hiring an inside linebackers coach. If it plays out that way, UCF assistant Geoff Collins, who studied Steele and the linebackers closely on a daily basis during his time as director of player personnel at Alabama in 2007, will be floated among others.

Saban's past searches, though, have taken him from Rutgers to Nebraska to Fresno State, so it may not be as simple as it seems.


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