It's rare in college football, and especially the SEC, that teams are given a second chance. The Alabama Crimson Tide saw their season slowly drift away from them as they lost a 9-6 defensive battle in which they missed four Field Goals. That loss moved the Crimson Tide to 8-1 with three games remaining on their schedule. All they could do was wait, hope and continue to win football games. As they waited, the Stanford Cardinal fell from the ranks of the unbeaten when they lost to Oregon. The very next week Oklahoma and Oregon both received their second losses of the season effectively knocking them out of the National Championship picture. On that same weekend Oklahoma State got shocked by Iowa State in Ames.
You have to be good to win a National Championship but you also have to be a bit lucky and everything fell into place to give Alabama a re-match with LSU for the National Title despite already losing once to the Tigers. The re-match was a one-sided affair where the Tide were clearly better coached, better prepared and seemed like they wanted to win the game more. The Tide's defense dominated LSU and maybe more importantly the Tide kept LSU's dynamic Special Teams play from becoming a factor in the game. For the second time in three years, Nick Saban led the Crimson Tide to the Crystal Trophy.
To re-cap Alabama's National Championship winning season we caught up with our resident Alabama guru, Jay, to get his take on the 2011 Crimson Tide and also to get a sneak peak into 2012.
CFBZ: Two National Championships in three years. If you had to pin point just a couple things, what have been the biggest factors in Alabama's great run over the last few years?
Jay: That's kind of a big question, but ultimately, I think it all boils down to Nick Saban. With Urban Meyer's status still questionable following his breakdown at Florida, I feel comfortable saying that he's the best coach active in college football today. Whether it's recruiting, developing players, motivating players, hiring staff, game planning, or whatever else falls under a head coach's purview, he's as good as or better than anyone else in the country. When the University of Alabama hired him, they basically gave him carte blanche to make the program over in his image. Whatever he wanted, he got. That's why Bama is sitting here with two titles in the three years. Not very long ago, it was really popular for fans of various allegiances to hypothesize, "What if Saban had never left what he had built at LSU? How many titles would he have won?" We're in the process of finding out.
CFBZ: Alabama started the year playing two QBs but shifted to AJ McCarron as the season progressed. Where did he make the most growth during the season and what are his expectations for next season?
Jay: The funny thing about McCarron is I don't think he got demonstrably better as the season went along. Despite not putting up big numbers against Penn State, I thought he looked really sharp in a tough spot in that game, and I was pretty much sold on him as the quarterback from that point onward. As someone who watched all the games, I really didn't get all the criticism of him throughout the season, people saying things like he was a "B-" quarterback and other such nonsense. And while I agree with the consensus that he played his best game of the year in the BCS title game, the things he did in that game weren't all that different from the things he had been doing all season long. It's not like he had some breakthrough during bowl preparation. Maybe he got a bit better at moving in the pocket as the year went along, and maybe got a little more at ease with the idea of not flinging the ball deep all the time, but overall it was very much the same guy from Happy Valley in the Superdome.
As far as future expectations go, I agree with Jim McElwain that the sky is the limit for him. This season was all about proving he could run the offense efficiently, and he did that. Next year, the goal should be to complement that efficiency with the big play potential that he flashed as a backup QB. If he can find the balance between those two sides of himself, the game manager and the gunslinger if you will, he can be the best quarterback in the conference.
CFBZ: When you are as successful as Alabama has been it means that you have to replace coaches. Jim McElwain moves on to Colorado State. Tells us a little about his replacement and what we should expect.
Jay: The main thing you should expect is more of the same. Saban isn't one of these defensive coaches who hires an OC and turns the reins over to him. He has very specific ideas about his offense, and Bama's offense will continue to be focused on controlling the clock and minimizing turnovers with the emphasis on a power running game with some high-percentage West Coast passing concepts thrown in. Saban hires OC's to do two main jobs: develop the quarterbacks and call plays.
With that in mind, I think Doug Nussmeier is a very solid hire, especially on that first count. At Washington, Nussmeier played a key role in developing Jake Locker from a poor man's Tim Tebow to a Top 10 NFL Draft pick, and this past season, he got surprisingly prolific results from first-year starter Keith Price. My main concern is his lack of play calling experience at the FBS level. Despite serving as the titular OC in Washington, it was Huskies head coach Steve Sarkisian who called the plays. Meaning Nussmeier only called plays during his stint as OC at Fresno State in 2008. That said, Sarkisian is a mastermind in the same sort of balanced, multiple set pro-style offense that Saban prefers, so if I'm taking an apprentice play caller, Sark's apprentice looks pretty good to me. (And it's probably worth noting that outgoing OC Jim McElwain's only playcalling experience at the FBS level prior to Alabama was at Fresno State in 2007, and that worked out alright.)
CFBZ: On defense, who are going to be the toughest players to replace?
Jay: I don't even know where to start on this one. I guess the top 3 guys I'd be worried about replacing are Josh Chapman at nose, Dont'a Hightower at mike, and Mark Barron at safety, since they were the leaders at their respective levels of the defense and carried the mental load of making sure everyone was on the same page pre-snap. However, Robert Lester's (wise) decision to return to school will give the Tide a third year starter to fill that role in the secondary, and between Nico Johnson and CJ Mosely, there should be no lack of experience in the middle of the linebacker corps. But who replaces Chapman in the middle? There's no heir apparent at nose tackle. I suppose Jesse Williams could slide over there (that's where everyone thought he'd play when he first came in, after all), but I think the coaches like the Aussie at defensive end. The only other true nose on the roster is redshirt freshman Brandon Ivory, who did not impress at all (to put it mildly) in the first extended action of his career against Georgia Southern. If Williams isn't the guy, I think there's a real chance a true freshman starts at that spot in 2012, with the early favorite being spring enrollee Alphonse Taylor (6'6", 340lbs).
CFBZ: With Trent Richardson leaving to go pro that leaves Bama a little thin as far as proven talent at the RB position. Is Eddie Lacy the next guy or do think it will be Dee Hart, TJ Yeldon or someone else?
Jay: I think Eddie Lacy will be the starter when Alabama shows up in Dallas next season, but I also think his hold on the #1 job isn't nearly as firm as the #1 guy's has been the past 2 seasons. That's not a knock on Lacy, who has a lot of talent, rather it's just an acknowledgement that he doesn't have a Heisman trophy on his kitchen table, he isn't as good as Trent Richardson, and nobody knows just how good Dee Hart and TJ Yeldon are capable of being yet.
Despite a lot of positive reports on his recovery, I think it's going to be difficult for Hart to be strong enough to win the #1 or #2 spots this offseason (I'm looking more toward 2013 to really see what he can do), but Yeldon intrigues me. When I watch his senior tape, I see an SEC back playing with high schoolers. With a full spring practice to get him up to speed, I think he's a real threat to take playing time from somebody. What's working in Lacy's favor is that A) Saban likes to reward veterans who have proven themselves on the field, and B) while he's not afraid to play freshman, he really doesn't like to just hand them starting jobs when they step on campus, if he can avoid it. Remember, Richardson started 2009 as the 3rd of 4th back on the depth chart and was made to earn his carries as the year progressed. I can see Saban putting Yeldon and/or a healthy Hart in a similar situation and then letting the cards fall where they may. But as long as Lacy stays healthy and holds on to the football, I doubt he gets completely overtaken in 2012. In fact, if he's up to it, I think the competition from these young guns will bring out the best Eddie Lacy we've seen yet.
Previous 2011 Exit Surveys
ACC- Clemson Tigers, Duke Blue Devils, FSU Seminoles, Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, Miami Hurricanes, North Carolina Tar Heels, NC State Wolfpack, Virginia Cavaliers, Virginia Tech Hokies, Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Big Ten- Iowa Hawkeyes, Michigan Wolverines, Michigan State Spartans, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Northwestern Wildcats, Ohio State Buckeyes, Penn State Nittany Lions, Purdue Boilermakers, Wisconsin Badgers