Top 50 Countdown: No. 37 Alabama

Coach: Nick Saban | Staff
In 2006: 6-7, 2-6; Lost 31-24 to Oklahoma State in the Independence Bowl.
Returning starters: Offense: 9. Defense: 5.
Key losses: RB Kenneth Darby, DT Jeremy Clark, LB Juwan Simpson, CB Ramzee Robinson, S Jeffrey Dukes.
2007 breakdown: Top 10 players | Outlook | Offense | Defense | Special teams | Coaching | Schedule

Breaking down the offense

Overview: In his first season as a starting quarterback, John Parker Wilson set school records for passing yards and passes attempted. He returns this season, as do his top two receivers. The Tide had issues running the ball in 2006, and it must try to correct that deficiency without the help of RB Kenneth Darby. If a dependable back emerges and Alabama can run effectively, the Tide could make a remarkable improvement on offense.

ALABAMA TOP 10
DJ Hall set a school single-season receiving record last year.

1. WR DJ Hall
2. CB Simeon Castille
3. OT Andre Smith
4. OG Antoine Caldwell
5. QB John Parker Wilson
6. DE Wallace Gilberry
7. WR Keith Brown
8. LB Prince Hall
9. S Rashad Johnson
10. OG Marlon Davis
Best player: After setting a school single-season receiving record last year, WR DJ Hall could emerge as one of the nation's top receivers this fall.

Most overrated: There's no questioning RB Jimmy Johns' talent, but off-field issues have prevented him from realizing his potential. Johns was suspended for a game last year and was excused from a couple of practices this spring for academic reasons.

Most underrated: OT Andre Smith and C Antoine Caldwell are the Alabama linemen earning most of the preseason acclaim, but guard Marlon Davis is a talented player in his own right. Davis moves well for a lineman and might rank alongside Caldwell as the Tide's best interior pass blocker.

Must step up: WR Keith Brown has shown flashes of being a top-level receiver, but he has struggled to consistently stay on the field because of injuries. If he is healthy and plays to his ability, Alabama's receivers will be as good as any in the SEC. Alabama also would love to see OT Chris Capps, OT Mike Johnson or OT B.J. Stabler step forward and provide some stability at right tackle.

Impact newcomer: RB Terry Grant only participated in three games last season before having to undergo shoulder surgery. He's back as a redshirt freshman. Utilizing his speed figures to be a big part of Alabama's game plans.

Position battle: Grant has a lot of promise, but he has no promises that he'll be the starting tailback. Johns will make a push for the job as will Glen Coffee, who was the top backup to Darby in 2005 but had injury issues last season. Roy Upchurch is a dangerous runner and could demand playing time if he improves his blocking. Highly regarded freshman Demetrius Goode likely will get a look, too.

New in 2007: Though not completely abandoning all pro-set concepts, the Tide will use three receivers and a lot of one-back sets under new offensive coordinator Major Applewhite. Wilson will find himself in the shotgun, and not just in third-and-long situations.

Grade the units:
QB: B. Wilson set a single-season school passing record as a first-year starter last fall.
RB: C+. Darby had a very disappointing senior season, but he remains one of the top career rushers in school history. The Tide must replace his production.
WR/TE: A. Hall and Brown give Alabama one of the nation's top receiving tandems.
OL: B-minus. The return of so many players should assure that Alabama is better up front than a year ago.

Breaking down the defense

Overview: Just two years ago, a stingy defense enabled the Crimson Tide to post 10 victories. But those starters are all gone now, and Alabama is rebuilding its unit. The group centers around LB Prince Hall, who had an impressive freshman year, and CB Simeon Castille. S Rashad Johnson is a big hitter who will draw praise from defensive-minded coach Nick Saban. But the linebacker and tackle positions will have to be bolstered.

Best player: Castille. His outstanding instincts and ball skills were evident last year. He picked off six passes and recovered three fumbles in the 2006 season. This ball-hawking cornerback gives Alabama one of the SEC's top defensive backs.

Alabama Schedule
Date Opponent
Sept. 1 Western Carolina
Sept. 8 at Vanderbilt
Sept. 15 Arkansas
Sept. 22 Georgia
Sept. 29 at Florida State
Oct. 6 Houston
Oct. 13 at Ole Miss
Oct. 20 Tennessee
Nov. 3 LSU
Nov. 10 at Mississippi State
Nov. 17 Louisiana-Monroe
Nov. 24 at Auburn
Most overrated: Hall. He played well enough to earn Freshman All-America honors from Rivals.com last year, but he still made the occasional freshman mistakes. Hall should have an outstanding career at Alabama, but it may be a bit early to declare him a star already.

Most underrated: Johnson. He's such a hard hitter that his speed often is overlooked. Don't be surprised if he emerges as a major contributor in the Tide's blitz packages this season.

Must step up: CB Lionel Mitchell was a starter for much of last season, but he lost his job with the first unit. He'll be back with the first string, and if he proves effective he'll pair with Castille to provide two solid cover corners. That will be important, because Saban likes to play a lot of man coverage.

Shoes to fill: Darren Mustin, a former walk-on and transfer from Middle Tennessee State, will be counted on to replace the production of Juwan Simpson - one of the team's leading tacklers in 2006.

Position battle: DTs Jeremy Clark, Dominic Lee and J.P. Adams are gone, leaving the starting spots wide open. Alabama has been waiting on Lorenzo Washington to reach his potential. Meanwhile, former center Brian Motley made a better-than-anticipated conversion in the spring. Holdover Byron Walton and newcomers Josh Chapman and Alfred McCullough will also challenge for time.

New in 2007: Not only will the Crimson Tide look to apply more pressure with increased blitzing, but they will also be more aggressive from various angles.

Grade the units:
DL: C. The return of DE Wallace Gilberry gives Tide fans reason for hope, but there are still plenty of questions at defensive tackle. The fact that reserve center Brian Motley could crack the starting lineup there reflects the Tide's lack of depth.
LB: D. Hall is a proven commodity, but the Tide still has plenty of questions at linebacker. The lack of athleticism at this position is a concern.
DB: B. Alabama will miss the departed Ramzee Robinson, but Castille returns to lead a talented group.

Breaking down the special teams

Overview: K Jamie Christensen missed the first part of last season, and his absence probably cost Alabama a victory at Arkansas. He returned to converted 13 of 17 field-goal attempts, and his accuracy is definitely a big plus. Javier Arenas, who brought two punts back for touchdowns as a true freshman last season, is a dangerous return man. P.J. Fitzgerald had a decent year with a 38-yard average per kick, but he needs to boost that average.

Season outlook with bowl forecast
Alabama made a dramatic coaching upgrade in the offseason by replacing Mike Shula with Nick Saban. However, it could take at least a couple of years for the former LSU coach to build the Tide into SEC title contenders. The arrival of Saban and the return of nine starters on offense should boost the Tide to an 8-5 finish with a victory in a second-tier bowl such as the Chick-fil-A or Music City. Consider this season a small step forward for a program that could make giant strides in the next few years.
Best player: Arenas. He capped an excellent freshman season by returning a punt 86 yards for a touchdown in an Independence Bowl loss to Oklahoma State.

Grade the units:
K: C-plus. Although Christensen went 13 of 17 on field-goal attempts last year, he went 1-for-4 from at least 40 yards.
P: C-plus. Fitzgerald ranked eighth in the SEC in punting average last year.
KR: B. Arenas averaged 19.1 yards per kickoff return last year, though he was more dangerous as a punt returner.
PR: B-plus. Arenas gives the Tide one of the nation's most dangerous punt returners.

Breaking down the coaching

Overview: Saban won a national championship at LSU and a bowl game at Michigan State, so he obviously has impeccable credentials at the collegiate level. Saban will demand the Tide be organized and play solid defense. Youthful offensive coordinator Major Applewhite presided over an offense last year at Rice that averaged almost 350 yards per game. He'll have to find a way to boost the Alabama running game.

Grade the coaches:
Head coach: A. Saban's track record at LSU speaks for itself.
Offense: B. Applewhite may not have much experience, but he certainly did an outstanding job in his brief tenure at Rice.
Defense: A. As the linebackers coach at Florida State, Kevin Steele tutored first-round draft picks Ernie Sims and Lawrence Timmons.

Special teams: B. New special teams coach Ron Middleton spent the last three seasons on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers staff, but he did a nice job at Ole Miss before heading to the NFL.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

Rivals.com is counting down our Preseason Top 50. Coming tomorrow: No. 36.


 

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