Coach:Nick Saban (7-6 in one season; 113-65-1 overall in 14 seasons). | Staff In 2007: 7-6 overall, 4-4 in the SEC (tied for third in SEC West).
Returning starters: Offense: 9. Defense: 5. Special teams: 2 | Depth Chart Key losses: Offense—G Justin Britt, WR Keith Brown, WR Matt Caddell, WR D.J. Hall. Defense—FS Marcus Carter, CB Simeon Castille, E Wallace Gilberry, LB Darren Mustin, LB Keith Saunders.
Final 2007 Rivals.com ranking: 49th. | Complete Final 2007 Rankings
THE SCHEME: Although Alabama has a new coordinator in Jim McElwain, the offense figures to stay largely the same. The Tide's base offense last season featured three wide receivers. They might try to add some bulk this season by using a fullback or by using two tight ends simultaneously.
STAR POWER: Junior tackle Andre Smith signed with Alabama as a five-star prospect and has lived up to the hype. Smith has started at left tackle since he showed up on campus, making him one of just seven true freshmen in school history to start his first career game. Instead of falling victim to the sophomore jinx, Smith got better last season and won the Jacobs Blocking Trophy that goes to the conference's best blocker.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Alabama suffered so many graduation losses in its receiving corps that any new wide receiver has a chance to earn playing time. So it's a good thing the Tide's top-ranked recruiting class included plenty of talented receivers. The most gifted is Julio Jones, a five-star prospect who was the No. 4 overall recruit in the nation. Jones had 194 career catches for 3,287 yards and 42 touchdowns at Foley (Ala.) High. While he won't get nearly as much attention this summer as Jones, redshirt freshman Darius Hanks showed he's ready for an opportunity by catching four passes for 102 yards in the spring game.
IT'S HIS TIME: Alabama's success last season often relied on the performance of quarterback John Parker Wilson. He threw a combined 10 touchdown passes in Alabama's victories over Arkansas, Tennessee and Colorado – arguably the Tide's most impressive wins of the season. But he went 63-for-131 with six interceptions and only four touchdown passes in the four-game losing streak that ended the regular season. Alabama won't challenge for a Western Division title unless Wilson improves his consistency.
STRONGEST AREA: Smith isn't the only stalwart on Alabama's line. The returns of Smith, centers Antoine Caldwell and Evan Cardwell and guards Marlon Davis and Mike Johnson assure that the Tide should open up plenty of holes for the tailbacks. Caldwell started five games at center, two at guard and two at tackle. Cardwell started the other eight games at center, but Caldwell is expected to be the center this season. Johnson began last season at tackle but moved to guard late in the season.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The departures of D.J. Hall, Keith Brown and Matt Caddell create plenty of uncertainty at wide receiver. The Tide has plenty of talented newcomers at wide receiver, but they don't have many proven performers. The only certain starter is junior Mike McCoy, who caught 28 passes for 207 yards and one touchdown last season.
OVERVIEW: Alabama's offense looked explosive early in Nick Saban's first season. Tailback Terry Grant ran wild and Wilson was on the mark as the Tide scored a combined 117 points in their first three games. But they stumbled down the stretch and were held to 14 or fewer points in their final three regular-season games. The Tide is hoping McElwain's arrival from Fresno State can rejuvenate Wilson. Alabama has reason for optimism, because McElwain helped make Fresno State's Tom Brandstater one of the nation's most improved quarterbacks last season. But 'Bama still doesn't know who will catch Wilson's passes. Grant and Glen Coffee should form a nice one-two punch in the backfield after combining to rush for 1,436 yards and 12 touchdowns last season.
That was the combined total of receptions by DJ Hall, Keith Brown and Matt Caddell last season. All three are gone, and only two returning wide receivers on the roster caught more than 10 passes last season.
THE SCHEME: The Tide moved to a 3-4 defense last season with Saban's arrival. A lack of depth at linebacker could be a problem this season.
STAR POWER: Senior Rashad Johnson is one of the most underrated safeties in the nation. He had 94 tackles and six interceptions a year ago in his first full season as a starter. And he knows how to deliver in big games. Jackson had eight tackles – one for loss – and an interception that set up a game-tying touchdown against Georgia. He had a team-high nine tackles and an interception against LSU, and he capped the season by recording 13 tackles in the Independence Bowl.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Jerrell Harris signed with Alabama as a four-star prospect and the No. 3 outside linebacker prospect in the country. He compiled 145 tackles, 15 sacks and three interceptions as a high school senior. Nobody's expecting him to deliver those kinds of numbers this fall, but he should earn immediate playing time.
IT'S HIS TIME: Alabama needs someone to provide a pass rush now that Wallace Gilberry has departed. Brandon Deaderick probably is the best candidate to fill the void. Deaderick had only two sacks while starting seven games last season, but Tide coaches are counting on him to step up his production this season.
STRONGEST AREA: Johnson and sophomore cornerback Kareem Jackson return to the secondary after combining for nine interceptions last season. If first-year starting cornerback Javier Arenas is anywhere near as good on defense as he is on special teams, the Tide's secondary should rank among the best in the SEC this season.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: That secondary had better be good because the Tide's front seven might not put much pressure on the quarterback. How much might Alabama's pass rush suffer now that Gilberry isn't around anymore? Consider that Gilberry had 10 sacks last season, and nobody else on the team produced more than three. Opposing quarterbacks could feel much more secure in the pocket this season unless the Tide finds a way to replace Gilberry's production.
OVERVIEW: Although Alabama didn't have anyone drafted this year, the Tide's defense did lose plenty of key contributors in Gilberry (80 overall tackles, 27 for loss), linebacker Darren Mustin (80 tackles) and cornerback Simeon Castille (63 tackles, 10 pass breakups). But the Tide still has plenty of talented guys returning from a defense that allowed 24 of fewer points in eight of their last nine games a year ago. While those numbers aren't exactly awe-inspiring, the Tide should fare better now that they've had a year to adjust to the 3-4 scheme.
Junior kicker Leigh Tiffin returns after going 25 of 34 on field-goal attempts last season, including 10 of 15 from at least 40 yards. He scored 111 points, the most ever by an Alabama kicker. P.J. Fitzgerald is back as the punter, but he ranked 11th in the SEC and 93rd in the nation last year with an average of 38.7 yards per attempt. Alabama's return units are in good hands with Arenas, a junior who averaged 15.4 yards per punt return and 24.3 yards per kickoff return last season. He has returned three punts for touchdowns in his career.
Alabama was one fourth-down stop away from taking control of the SEC West in Saban's first season until LSU rallied for a 41-34 victory that triggered the Tide's late-season tailspin. But the way that first season ended was forgotten once Saban hauled in the nation's top recruiting class. His recruiting prowess assures that Alabama should be contending for conference championships sometime in the next few years. Saban is hoping McElwain's arrival will spark an inconsistent offense. After averaging 23 points per game in 2006, Fresno State averaged 32.9 last season in McElwain's lone year as coordinator. Saban also hired former Michigan State coach Bobby Williams as tight end coach to replace Ron Middleton, who left for Duke. Williams previously worked for Saban at Michigan State, LSU and with the NFL's Miami Dolphins.
Clemson at Atlanta
Alabama's opening game with Clemson will allow the Tide to learn immediately how far they've come since the losing streak that ended the '07 regular season. If the Tide can beat Clemson, they should carry an undefeated record into the Sept. 27 Georgia game and realistically could be 6-1 when they head to Tennessee on Oct. 25. The Tide opens the regular season in Atlanta, but will they return to the Georgia Dome in December for the SEC title game? A three-game stretch against Western Division rivals LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn to end the regular season will determine that. If Alabama wins all three games, it likely will be playing for the SEC championship. If it loses all three, 'Bama likely is headed to another "lesser" bowl.
Saban has done a great job on the recruiting trail, but this team still seems a year or two away from challenging for a BCS berth. We could change our minds if Wilson has a breakthrough season and the Tide finds an elite receiver and pass rusher. However, Alabama currently doesn't look quite as talented on paper as LSU or Auburn. But the Tide also doesn't look like a team that will have to settle for another Independence Bowl bid. We're guessing Alabama beats at least one of the four potential preseason top-10 teams on their schedule (Clemson, Georgia, LSU and Auburn) on the way to an 8-5 finish that includes an appearance in the Cotton, Chick-fil-A or Music City bowls.