ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE
2012 record: 13-1
2012 conference record: 7-1 (first, Western Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 5; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 2
C Barrett Jones, LG Chance Warmack, RT D.J. Fluker, RB Eddie Lacy, CB Dee Milliner, S Robert Lester, LB Nico Johnson, NG Jesse Williams
2012 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Eddie Lacy (1,322 yards)
Passing: AJ McCarron* (2,933 yards)
Receiving: Amari Cooper* (1,000 yards)
Tackles: C.J. Mosley* (107)
Sacks: Adrian Hubbard* (7)
Interceptions: Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix* (5)
1. Weapons abound: It's an embarrassment of riches, really. The Alabama offense has steadily gained strength in recent years, but this coming season promises more explosiveness with a senior under center and a number of playmakers at wide receiver. Starters Amari Cooper and Kevin Norwood return, along with a triumvirate of rehabilitated weapons in Chris Black, Kenny Bell and DeAndrew White. Throw in a talented freshman in tight end O.J. Howard, and the possibilities in the passing game are limitless.
2. Rebuilt offensive line: It started the offseason as the biggest question mark, but spring camp quelled any fear of the offensive line experiencing a significant drop-off after losing three of five starters from last season. Ryan Kelly has become the centerpiece snapping the football, stepping in for former Rimington Award winner Barrett Jones at center. And with two cornerstone linemen in left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and right guard Anthony Steen, coach Nick Saban has to feel good about where things stand up front on offense.
3. Leadership from the top: For two years he hasn't had to take the bull by the horns. There have been other, often older, leaders to step up and take charge. But this season is different for quarterback AJ McCarron. He's not only coming into his own as a passer, he's developing into the voice of the football team -- and not just on offense.
1. Secondary solutions: Year after year, the problem is the same. Alabama develops stars in the secondary only to see them leave for the NFL draft. This time it was shutdown cornerback Dee Milliner and veteran safety Robert Lester walking out the door. And who will step up to replace them remains unclear. Deion Belue looks to have rebounded after a shaky first season in Tuscaloosa, and rising sophomore Geno Smith showed promise as a rookie in 2012. But it will take more than a handful of starters to keep the Tide's secondary on track.
2. Rushing the passer: While it's true that Saban's system isn't built on traditional defensive statistics like sacks and tackles for loss, it is capable of accomplishing those things with the right playmakers in place. And recently there has been a lack of pure edge rushers capable of collapsing the pocket on a consistent basis. Adrian Hubbard stepped up at outside linebacker late in the season, but his production has been up and down. If guys like linebacker Xzavier Dickson and defensive end Dalvin Tomlinson can provide that pressure, the defense will be in good shape.
3. In case of emergency: It's the scenario no one around Tuscaloosa wants to entertain: What would happen if AJ McCarron were injured and missed a significant portion of the season? If he were to go down, would the Tide's championship hopes leave with him? Last season's backups have been inconsistent at best, and don't appear to be real options over the long term. The three early enrollees at the position aren't ready either, but redshirt freshman Alec Morris might be the one the staff can rely on. He'll have the fall to prove whether he's capable of becoming a dependable backup, and in turn the future at quarterback when McCarron moves on after this season.