Post-Spring Previews: Alabama

After taking on Kentucky at home, Carolina has to travel to Tuscaloosa to take on Nick Saban's Alabama Crimson Tide. For all the love going towards Ole Miss this off season, this game against 'Bama will most likely be the second most difficult game on the schedule, IMO. As CFN points out in regards to the Tide,

The season will be a success if ... the Tide wins the SEC title. It's asking too much to have the same regular season two years in a row with all the same injury breaks and after the SEC was down last year. But the schedule isn't bad and the team is loaded with talent and depth. So the team is better, the schedule is better, and the program will be more motivated than ever after how last year ended. Bama can't be shooting any lower than an SEC title as the goal.

This is a team that has the tools and coach to go all the way, despite the lackluster finish to last season and the fact that they lost a few offensive play makers like John Parker Wilson and Glen Coffee. A win would be an unqualified upset for us, even if we turn out to have a pretty solid team.

Let's take a look at how we match up against these guys.

Offense

Quarterback

Now that longtime starter John Parker Wilson has moved on, the Tide are looking to junior Greg McElroy to lead them to another SEC West crown. McElroy appears to be a master in the art of patience, as he also served as a longtime backup in high school to former Missouri Heisman contender Chase Daniel. McElroy has played well in mop-up duty at 'Bama and was able to take a firm hold of the starting job in spring practice despite the presence of highly recruited talents like Star Jackson on the 'Bama depth chart. McElroy's job, much like Wilson's was, will be to play the role of game manager, as the Tide's offense will again rely on a strong down-field rushing attack. Based on what we've seen so far (which is little, admittedly), McElroy looks admirably suited to doing well in the 'Bama system. While he doesn't have a huge arm, he 's accurate and makes good decisions. I'd call this a push; Stephen Garcia looks to be a little more physically talent than McElroy and may surpass McElroy as the season progresses, but McElroy gets the benefit of the doubt because he's yet to show the kinds of decision making problems that Garcia showed late last season.

Verdict: Push

Running Backs

Now that star tailback Glen Coffee has left Tuscaloosa for the NFL, the Tide will need to find identity in their backfield. They'll likely employ a committee approach, much like us. Mark Ingram will probably be the number one guy; he rushed for over 700 yards as the second back in last year's rotation. Ingram pulled his hamstring and missed part of spring practice but will be ready to go in the fall. Other backs include Roy Upchurch, Terry Grant, and incoming freshman Trent Richardson, who was one of 2009's top recruiting targets. While losing Coffee hurts somewhat, it should be apparent by now that 'Bama has the talent to have another strong rushing offense. I think we're going to have a better running game this year, but we have a slight to strong disadvantage in this comparison.

Verdict: Slight advantage Alabama

Wide Receivers / Tight Ends

'Bama loses very little at the receiving positions from a year ago. They have one of the country's best wide outs in sophomore Julio Jones. Jones is a big receiver with soft hands that never fail to reel in a catchable ball. Marquis Maze, Mike McCoy, and a crew of talented tight ends will try to take attention away from Jones, whom many teams would prefer to double team. While we have similar depth at receiver, we simply don't have anyone like Jones, which means that 'Bama has an advantage over us here.

Verdict: Slight advantage Alabama

Offensive Line

The Tide lost two of the best linemen in the country in left tackle Andre Smith (Lombardi Award winner for nation's best lineman and the sixth pick in the NFL draft) and center Antoine Caldwell. 'Bama will be hard pressed to fill their shoes. However, they recruited JUCO star James Carpenter and high-school star D. J. Fluker to make up the difference. This should be another good line and I would give 'Bama a slight advantage over us here.

Verdict: Slight advantage Alabama

Let's take a look at defenses after the jump.

Defense

'Bama prefers a 3-4 defense with two inside linebackers. Their defense was one of the country's best in 2008 and returns 9 of 11 starters for what should be another stellar unit.

Defensive Line

The Tide's defensive line features one of the country's best (and biggest) tackles in nose Terrence Cody. Cody is absolutely dominant when it comes to plugging up the middle. 'Bama loses end Bobby Greenwood but appears to be prepared to improve at the position with highly touted Marcel Dareus and / or Luther Davis. I would give 'Bama a slight advantage here. I love the depth on our line and think we probably have a stiffer pass rush, but having a player like Cody changes the rules for 'Bama, as opposing offenses have to plan around the fact that you just can't move the ball up the middle against the Tide. This group will probably contribute to the best run defense in the conference, if not the country.

Verdict: Slight advantage Alabama

Linebackers

The Tide's linebacking corps is headed by Rolando McClain, who will be competing with Eric Norwood for the honor of being the conference's best linebacker. Dont'a Hightower will also be a star in the conference. As with the defensive line, I like our group quite a bit. However, outside of Norwood, 'Bama is simply better than us here.

Verdict: Slight advantage Alabama

Secondary

'Bama loses star safety Rashad Johnson to the NFL. Safety Kareem Jackson is a proven talent, however, and highly recruited freshman corner Dre Kirkpatrick (the nation's number four overall recruit and top corner) should be able to contribute immediately. Still, if this defense has a weakness, it's here, so maybe we can attack through the air if we can't run, which I suspect will be the case. Things are much the same for us, though, and I think 'Bama has a bit more raw talent.

Verdict: Slight advantage Alabama

Special Teams

The Tide return a very experienced group of special teams units. Placekicker Leigh Tiffin (son of 'Bama legend Van Tiffin) has been very efficient throughout his career, as has punter P. J. Fitzgerald. Having experience in the kicking game gives the Tide an instant advantage over us. 'Bama also returns talented kick returner Javier Arenas, who has returned six punts for touchdowns in his career and averaged 13.5 yards per return on punts and 22.7 on kickoffs last year. The team has fielded good coverage units, as well. Advantage 'Bama here, considering all of the question marks we have on special teams.

Verdict: Strong advantage Alabama

Head Coaches

Although both have followed similar paths of success at an SEC, followed by a failed trip to the NFL, followed by a return to another SEC school in the same division as their former home, it's not easy to compare Nick Saban and Steve Spurrier. After finishing sixth in the country last year, Saban has obviously had more success at his current job, but his current job is at one of college football's most decorated programs. This isn't to say that he hasn't done a good job. He's elevated the talent since the Mike Shula days and he maximized his teams production last year. However, it would be fair to say that it's not particularly difficult to win at Alabama, a school with some of the best amenities in the land and a solid in-state recruiting base. Spurrier, on the other hand, is tackling one of football's most imfamously difficult challenges. He's done OK, recruiting well and avoiding a losing season, both legitimate challenges at South Carolina. However, most would agree that he's underachieved a bit over the past two seasons, especially considering that he was brought in to reproduce his high-flying offenses, a task at which he has dismally failed. I would give Saban a slight advantage here because he has exceeded expectations, but comparing coaches at 'Bama and Carolina is like comparing apples and oranges, so take that with a grain of salt.

Verdict: Slight advantage Alabama

Overall

I'd love to say that I can see an upset here, but I can't. Although Ole Miss is getting all the attention right now in the West, this Alabama team will probably be just as good as last year's team, maybe better. They're the team to beat until proven otherwise. Although I may revise my predictions if we end up being much better than advertised (a possibility, considering the question marks we have at quarterback, running back, and secondary), right now I just think the Tide are too much better than us across the board for me to see anything other than a possible moral victory here if we keep it close. A win would probably require a bizarrely bad, turnover-prone effort from the Tide, unlikely considering that their running game controls the ball well and their quarterback won't be asked to air it out. The fact that the game is in Bryant-Denny--one of the game's more intimidating environments--makes envisioning an upset all the tougher. If projections came out right now, 'Bama would likely be 10+ point favorites. That sounds fair to me.

Prediction: 14-17 point loss

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