Hope and concern: Alabama

Taking a closer look at why it could be a memorable 2011 season in Tuscaloosa and why it might not be so memorable:

Biggest reason for hope: Talent and experience on defense.

Even with the loss of Marcell Dareus early to the NFL draft, Alabama returns as much talent on defense as any team in the league. Linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw, along with safeties Mark Barron and Robert Lester and cornerbacks DeQuan Menzie and Dre Kirkpatrick, all have a chance to be first- or second-round draft picks. In other words, the Crimson Tide won’t lack for talent on defense. Even more importantly, they will be much more experienced on defense, particularly in the secondary. Mental errors and botched assignments took their toll on Alabama in key situations a year ago, and lot of that was inexperience. Everybody is back in the secondary next season, though, and don’t be surprised if Menzie and Kirkpatrick end up forming one of the best cornerback combos in the league. Barron and Lester will be one of the best safety tandems, and there will be others such as Dee Milliner pushing for playing time. Alabama won’t be limited the way it was in the secondary last season, which will open up more things across the board defensively for the Crimson Tide.

Biggest reason for concern: Uncertainty at quarterback.

Alabama ended the spring with sophomore AJ McCarron and redshirt freshman Phillip Sims in a dead heat for the starting quarterback job. It’s close enough that coach Nick Saban is talking about playing them both and letting them sort it out during the games. Neither McCarron nor Sims has ever started a game in college. In fact, Sims didn’t play at all last season, and McCarron played primarily in mop-up roles. So this will be their first look at SEC defenses when it counts, meaning there’s bound to be some mistakes as they feel their way around the league. And until somebody separates himself, it’s going to be an adjustment for everybody else on offense to get used to two quarterbacks. The good news is that both players instilled confidence in their teammates this spring. Now comes the real test -- instilling that same confidence once the games begin.