Coach Dennis Franchione's first season at Alabama proved to be fairly satisfying, especially when you consider that the Crimson Tide were 3-5 at one point. But three of those losses were by a field goal or less, and Alabama closed things out with a four-game winning streak -- including a 14-13 victory over Iowa State in the Independence Bowl.
With a host of quality starters returning on both sides of the ball and some intriguing additions from the juco ranks, there is reason to believe that the Crimson Tide can compete for the top spot in the SEC West this season.
Alabama has depth at quarterback and running back as well as an improved situation at wide receiver, plus what could be a very solid line. Senior Tyler Watts is firmly entrenched as the No. 1 QB, but look for redshirt freshman Brodie Croyle to be worked into the mix as well.
The running game should be a strong suit. Senior Ahmaad Galloway isn't a home-run hitter, but he chips away at the opposition and always gives a consistent day's work. Providing quite a one-two punch will be underrated junior Santonio Beard.
Shaud Williams, a transfer from Texas Tech, will operate at the A-back spot (or slot/wingback position). Speedy sophomore Ray Hudson also will be heavily in the mix. Expect some matchup advantages to be created by Williams and Hudson.
While Antonio Carter and Sam Collins open as the starters at wide receiver, keep a close eye on heralded juco recruit Zach Fletcher (from City College of San Francisco) and talented freshman Marcus McKnight.
Losing TE Terry Jones Jr. to graduation hurts. Jones was a top flight in-line blocker who became more of a factor in the passing game last season. Senior Theo Sanders will look to pick up the slack.
Even with OT Dante Ellington ruled ineligible for this season, the Crimson Tide should field a capable move-'em-out gang, led by highly regarded senior center Alonzo Ephraim, senior OG Marico Portis and sophomore OTs Wesley Britt and Evan Mathis (the nephew of former Crimson Tide and Miami Dolphin star Bob Baumhower).
The Crimson Tide could field a destructive front line and a solid linebacking corps.
Leading the charge up front is intense, hard-working senior Jarret Johnson. Word is that Johnson is 100 percent after a spring knee injury. I view Johnson as one of the elite defensive players in college football. He's also a favorite of ESPN College GameDay's Kirk Herbstreit.
Proven veterans Kenny King and Kindal Moorehead will add to the punch on the defensive line, while sophomore DE Antwan Odom has shown good progress. Odom could be a force off the edge this season. Three new players to keep an eye on: massive sophomore Ahmad Childress (6-7, 345) and talented incoming freshmen Jeremy Clark and Kyle Tatum. Childress comes to Tuscaloosa from Pasadena City Community College. And in recruiting guru Tom Lemming's listing of the top 100 prep prospects, Tatum was No. 63.
Franchione and defensive coordinator Carl Torbush must find an adequate replacement for superlative MLB Saleem Rasheed, a three-year starter who decided to move on to the NFL after his junior campaign. Last year, Rasheed flourished at the mike-man spot, recording 115 tackles, including seven games with 10 or more stops. The new starter figures to be Garden City Community College transfer Derrick Pope, with redshirt freshman Freddie Roach providing strong competition. Junior Cornelius Wortham will again operate on the strong side, with versatile junior Brooks Daniels roaming sideline to sideline at the rover position. At 6-2 and 208 pounds, the active Daniels recorded more than 100 tackles last season.
While the front seven on defense looks strong if Pope is the answer at middle linebacker, there are questions to be answered in the secondary. Senior Gerald Dixon needs to show more game-to-game consistency at cornerback, while on the other side, juco transfer David Scott could move into a starting role ahead of incumbent senior Hirchel Bolden. Junior Charles Jones and senior Waine Bacon will be the starters at free and strong safety, respectively.
Last year, in Franchione's first season with the Crimson Tide, Alabama was competitive throughout and, with a few breaks, could have finished with a record of 9-3 instead of 7-5. This season, the Tide should improve for several reasons. Not only are the players familiar now with the systems on both sides of the ball, but the talent level has been upgraded with the addition of wingback Shaud Williams and several juco transfers and freshmen. Watts opens at QB, but it will be interesting to see how much Croyle is worked into the mix, since he's the heir apparent for 2003.
With Galloway and Beard utilizing a decisive, aggressive running style while staying fresh for four quarters, the Crimson Tide should not have trouble moving the chains. The presence of skilled performers like Williams and Hudson at the A-back will give opposing defensive coordinators headaches. Ephraim anchors what should be a solid offensive line, although tight end poses a key question: How much of a drop-off will occur due to the graduation loss of Terry Jones Jr.?
If Johnson is at full strength all year, he could rank among the most destructive defensive linemen in the country. He'll have plenty of assistance from King, Moorehead, Childress and Anthony Bryant. The spotlight will be on Pope, who will look to replace Rasheed in the middle, while Daniels is one of the more unheralded standouts in the SEC. The concern will be that the secondary again proves to be a major weak link. To avoid this, Scott needs to provide an immediate upgrade at CB, and the physically talented defensive line has to mask some of the problems by providing an intimidating, steady pass rush.
While the Crimson Tide will be improved over last year in terms of knowledge, familiarity and talent, the schedule provides a number of rough challenges. Included are difficult road trips to Oklahoma, Tennessee and LSU. Don't underestimate Arkansas, either; remember, Alabama has never won at Fayetteville. Even though LSU deserves to be the preseason favorite in the SEC West, the Crimson Tide should be in the hunt the entire way.