TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- By any statistical measure, Doug Nussmeier's first season as Alabama's offensive coordinator was a success: 38.7 points per game, more than 200 yards per game rushing and passing, a 90 percent success rate inside the red zone. Nussmeier crossed the country from Washington and hit the ground running, helping lead the Crimson Tide to their third national championship in four years.
The rings tell the most important story. The rest fills in the gaps.
There were ups and downs for the Alabama offense a season ago. There were high moments against Notre Dame, Michigan and Arkansas, when it looked like an NFL defense would have trouble slowing its progress. But there were lackluster moments, too, against LSU, Texas A&M and Georgia, when it didn't seem the offense was headed in any particular direction. But through 14 games, a few stall-outs are to be expected. There were injuries at receiver, offensive line and, as we later discovered, quarterback.
The 2013 season offers Nussmeier and the Alabama offense a fresh start. His quarterback will be healthy once again and his receiving corps will be loaded with talent. He will, however, have to answer a few questions about the future of the offense when spring practice begins Saturday, most notably how to rebuild its foundation in the trenches.
1. Hitting 'refresh' on the offensive line
Talent isn't the question, experience is. With three starting positions to fill and a new coach leading the charge, it's safe to call the offensive line a rebuilding project, even at a place where turnover is usually viewed more along the lines of retooling and not rebuilding from the ground up. Former Florida International coach Mario Cristobal comes to Alabama with a strong pedigree as a former All-American and championship winner at Miami, and while his task at his new job is daunting, it's not without some advantage. He has a cornerstone to build off of in left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio. Returning guard Anthony Steen is no slouch, either.
2. Depth at wide receiver, running back
The talent on the offensive side of the football is impressive. There are more receivers than there are footballs. There are more running backs than there are carries. The leading men at both positions -- Amari Cooper and Kevin Norwood at receiver, T.J. Yeldon at running back -- are assumed, but the rest of the depth chart is filled with question marks. And the answers are made further complicated by the fact that many of the potential reserves at wideout (DeAndrew White, Kenny Bell, Chris Black) and running back (Jalston Fowler, Dee Hart) are coming off of season-ending injures. The good news? Even if they're not 100 percent now, they likely will be by fall camp. And if they're not, there are plenty of reinforcements to carry the load.
Never has the second level of a depth chart been so hotly debated. Like receiver and running back, questions exist at quarterback. There's no doubt that McCarron is the No. 1 quarterback. He has three championship rings on his fingers and a legitimate shot at a Heisman Trophy this season. But he has only one season of eligibility left, and the time to find his replacement is now -- not next year, Saban has said, but now. It doesn't appear that his backups from a season ago are in play for that honor; Phillip Ely and Blake Sims did little to inspire confidence as passers, nor did the staff appear to show much faith in their play. That leaves Alec Morris, who redshirted his freshman season, and three rookies who are new to the playbook: Cooper Bateman, Parker McLeod and Luke Del Rio.
4. In what direction is the offense headed?
There's nothing necessarily wrong with Alabama's offense. ESPN college football Insider Travis Haney did a good job of breaking down the numbers to show just how maddeningly efficient Nussmeier's operation was in 2012. But there were times when the Crimson Tide appeared on the verge of an identity crisis. For a team that ran the ball the most effectively in all of college football, it abandoned the running game a lot at important times during games. With an even more talented group of receivers and a less experienced offensive line, will Nussmeier continue to get pass-happy? Or will he rely on Alabama's bread and butter under Saban and stick to a solid ground game? No matter what direction he chooses, he'll have more weapons with which to work. The tight end and H-back positions, long a source of lesser production in the passing game, appear on the verge of opening up, with talented early enrollee O.J. Howard ready to make an instant impact. Fellow early enrollee Derrick Henry, Howard and Fowler are all the type of hybrid players that can cause headaches for opposing defenses.