Mike Shula is in his fourth season as Alabama head football coach, but the former Crimson Tide quarterback does not yet have a full stable of football horses. That relates primarily to NCAA sanctions that stripped Bama of 21 scholarships and left the Crimson Tide thin at a number of positions. While Alabama will be near the 85 limit in scholarshipped players this season, nearly 75 per cent will be sophomores or younger. Additionally, a succession of short-term coaches since Gene Stallings was winning at a 81 per cent clip in the 1990s had the program in disarray.
Shula and staff–particularly Defensive Coordinator Joe Kines–cobbled a representative team in 2005, but most of the key performers from that squad have departed. There are not so many gone on offense, but one is the man who took every meaningful snap at quarterback, Brodie Croyle. On defense, there are seven starters gone, including the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year, DeMeco Ryans. On the plus side from Shula's standpoint is that quality is up and competition for jobs is more widespread.
Alabama fans, spoiled by an unparalleled Southern football tradition, have high expectations often bereft of reason. They will expect improvement, not excuses. And they have short memories of how close last year's record was to mediocre. In addition to its Cotton Bowl win over Texas Tech with a last-play field goal, the Tide also had a last-play field goal to beat an Ole Miss team that had the league's worst record and an absolute miracle win over Tennessee.
Alabama has a new quarterback for 2006, sophomore John Parker Wilson, who has a grand total of fewer than 50 college plays. He completed 7 of 11 passes for 98 yards, over 2400 fewer yards than Croyle had. Wilson has some skills and toughness, but his lack of experience has to be considered a huge minus.
Look for Bama to be conservative on offense. This is not "Man Bites Dog" news. Alabama is always conservative on offense. Even as Croyle was displacing some prestigious names in the Crimson Tide record book–move on down Namath and Starr and Stabler and Shula and Barker and Zow–Bama was relying primarily on the running of Kenneth Darby.
In many years, Darby would be a Heisman Trophy candidate. Because of some other good backs in the SEC, the upcoming senior Bama tailback is not even consensus pre-season All-SEC. But like Croyle last year, Darby is expected to rush by the likes of Shaun Alexander, Bobby Humphrey, Johnny Musso, Shaud Williams, and Derrick Lassic in Bama records.
Darby has put together back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons and is on track to become the top runner in storied Alabama history. Moreover, the tailback position is perhaps Alabama's deepest with quality back-ups in Jimmy Johns, Roy Upchurch, and Glenn Coffee (if Coffee successfully rehabilitates from summer surgery for a sports hernia).
Alabama also has quality depth at fullback (LéRon McClain and Tim Castille) and tight end (Travis McCall, Nick Walker, and Charles Hoke). In Alabama's offense, both those positions have been primarily blocking roles.
The line has been up-and-down at best over the past few years. There are still questions because the end of the 2005 season included a terrible game against Auburn in which the Tigers managed 11 sacks in a 28-18 Auburn win. But even though it is relatively young, the line should be improved this season because of sophomores like center Antoine Caldwell and guard B.J. Stabler.
Shula has to be disappointed that wide receiver is a major question mark going into the season. Last year the Tide's top receiver, Tyrone Prothro, suffered a broken leg while playing in mop-up time of a 31-3 rout of Florida. After being on crutches for eight months, it is not realistic to expect him back this year. At the end of the season the starting wide receivers were D.J. Hall and Keith Brown. The upcoming juniors have to be considered questionable for this year because of academic issues that were being whispered early in the summer. Since Zeke Knight was shifted to defense, only little-used Matt Caddell has any college experience among other wide receivers. Nikita Stover, a junior college transfer, showed some skills in spring practice, but he is a long way from being ready for the SEC.
Alabama football has a long, long history of dominating defenses. That doesn't mean the Crimson Tide doesn't sometimes have bad games, or even bad seasons. For the past few years Bama has ranked among the nation's best in all defensive categories. This year it appears inevitable that there will be a drop in defensive strength. Seven men who were on Bama's defense in 2005 are in NFL camps in 2006.
The losses were spread throughout the defense. One starting tackle (Jeremy Clark) returns, one must be replaced. One defensive end (Wallace Gilberry) is back, but a new man will be on the other flank. Little-used Dominic Lee at tackle and Keith Saunders at end, along with impressive soph end Bobby Greenwood will be in the playing rotation on the defensive line.
Juwan Simpson is the only returning starting linebacker, and he was one of a handful of Tiders who wasn't on his best behavior in the summer. He may miss some games, but he'll be at weakside linebacker with Terrence Jones at strongside. The middle linebacker spot will go to either Matt Collins, the top back-up last year, or athletic redshirt freshman Prince Hall.
Left cornerback Ramzee Robinson is the only returning starter in the secondary, although strong safety Jeffrey Dukes was the starting nickel back in the Cotton Bowl and Simeon Castille has starting experience both as a cornerback and nickel. Based on spring work, Castille or Eric Gray will be the right cornerback, Dukes will be at strong safety, and Marcus Carter will be the safety.
Alabama won three games last year on last-minute field goals by Jamie Christensen, who is back for his junior year. He is one of the few returning for special teams play. And Alabama was only average at best in all other phases of the kicking game.
Bama must have a new punter (P.J. Fitzgerald was best of a weak field in the spring), long snapper, holder, and kickoff and punt return men.
When it comes down to it, the strength of a team is only part of the equation. The strength of its opposition has a major bearing on the success of a team, and often times so does location.
Last year, Alabama played most of its tough games in the friendly confines of Bryant-Denny Stadium and had SEC wins over Arkansas, Florida, and Tennessee (and an overtime loss to LSU). This year Bama must go to Fayetteville and Gainesville and Knoxville and Baton Rouge. At home the Tide will have to get wins over an Auburn team that has a four-game winning streak against Bama and against the Mississippi team that was nearly good enough to beat Alabama a year ago.
Bama should be a solid home favorite against Mississippi State and Vanderbilt, and three of the Tide's four non-conference games are unlikely to hurt Alabama in any way but schedule-bashing. Louisiana-Monroe, Duke, and Florida International should be easy wins. It's a little more difficult to judge the quality of Bama's season-opening opponent, Hawaii, but the Warriors are generally less effective on the road and without their WAC officials.
Alabama is generally picked third in the SEC Western Division behind LSU and Auburn, and that seems reasonable…perhaps optimistic. In the pre-season, the Crimson Tide would be considered a heavy underdog to Florida, LSU and Auburn; a slight underdog to Tennessee and Arkansas; and only a slight favorite over Ole Miss and Hawaii. So an 8-4 or 7-5 season seems to be the guess.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one in a series of 2006 outlooks of Southeastern Conference football teams as provided by the football writers of Scout.com SEC sites.