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An Absurdly Premature Assessment of: Alabama

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A random, too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.
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The least you should know about Alabama...
2006 Record
6-7 (2-6 SEC/ T-Fifth West)
Past Five Years
36-27 (19-21 SEC)
Returning Starters, Roughly
12 (7 Offense, 5 Defense)
Best Player
Most freshmen left tackles are relatively, shall we say, obscure, but already Andre Smith can sleep at night knowing he will be remembered for very non-offensive line moves like donning the hat here and rumbling into the end zone here. All-SEC end and future millionaire Antwain Robinson, too, has his own personal Andre Smith memory...or maybe not...

Smith started every game as a hugely hyped freshman and was credited (PDF) with a team-high 62 knockdowns, however exactly that was judged by the old staff. He was overlooked for the all-conference team, but will be taking up roots there the next two years, three if he decides to stay that long. It’s not such a schlobbernocker type thing as advertised, but watch him hustle for one of those knockdowns on a quick screen here, further evidence of his much-coveted mobility on the very crucial blind side.

Bizarre Tradition(s)
Alabama Football in general is one ongoing tradition, if you ask them, and as such is inherently bizarre and occasionally – as in the "welcome" video that opens games at Bryant-Denny Stadium, beginning always with the chilling, beyond-the-grave quality of the Bear’s cigarette-induced growl, accompanied by an idolatrous cheer – pretty morbid as well. But as an oft-pounded partisan of Southern Miss, SMQ advises visitors to make no mistake: when 80,000 people get to yellin’ We just beat the hell outta you! at the end of a certain Tide win, it’s a pretty persuasive argument.

Also not to be discounted, the burgeoning heritage of hot Houndstooth Twins (from UAB!), immensely tacky and therefore immensely popular football art, and the simultaneously redneck yet preppy scourge of Bama bangs.

Bizarre Item of Dubious Interest
The weirdest part of this thread, describing a coaching clinic held by Alabama staff last weekend, is that the writer not only refers to coaches by the title "Coach Nick Saban" or "Coach Mike Shula," but retains the "Coach" when referring to them by initials, as he does many, many times. Saban, therefore, is "CNS," Major Applewhite is "CMA," etc., as if "Coach" was his first name and an intractable element of his identity as a person. Never will it be anything other than "Coach Saban." This is amazing deference beyond what is even typically reserved among adults for doctors, preachers and legislators, the latter depending on party affiliation. Ingrained Southern over-respect for authority run amok on message boards!

Since a Worldwide Leader announcer commented on Mike Shula's expression when the on-field sprinklers went off in the middle of the third quarter of a game two years ago, SMQ at various times dubbed the coach "the Perplexed-Looking Mike Shula," dropped for most of a successful 2005 but heartily revived during last year's 2-6 run in the SEC. Shula was a very genial young coach but also one who struggled with decisions such as "How should our offense best employ the talents of Kenneth Darby?" and "Should we aggressively pursue a victory in overtime, or take the certain three points and rely on our defense to make a stop?" and "Who is calling plays?"

Coach Nick Saban, by contrast, will look perplexed only in irony, only to sate his natural thirst for drama, as a prelude to snapping his fingers for unseen goons to descend on your helpless, indecisive silhouette, which is soon broken. Coach Nick Saban does not want to hear excuses. He is not perplexed. Coach Nick Saban demands action.

His first act was to give the old Italian chin flick to his boss in Miami, then to the coonasses in LSU who think they're all, like, rivals now or something and got all pissed off. Wow, go figure that. Coach Nick Saban's next move was to call everyone a pussy and demand sprints, sprints, more sprints from these flabby hillbillies they gave him. Coach Nick Saban does not need players so much as he needs laser-eyed, mercenary storm troopers who will blitz and kill if necessary in any situation with no hesitation. A vial of unidentified liquid crystal extract from the calcium deposit in the decrepit joints of Bear Bryant's mummified corpse in the bowels of the Mal Moore Football Building's Hall of Champions is involved, followed by an elaborate blood ritual performed by outgoing captain Juwan Simpson. And sexual depravity, needless to say. Alabama Football is about forming one heartbeat, and one monolithic goose step of razor-sharp cleats onto the field, and one incessant shriek of pain from opposing quarterbacks disemboweled in the mud at the fifty-yard line.

Ruthless killers Starters study Nick Saban's defensive playbook.
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The point being this: Coach Nick Saban is a leader. You cannot inherit leadership, in the same way you cannot inherit the technique for ending a walk-on's insubordination with the deadly, finely honed din mak. You can inherit rank incompetence, but don't bring it here if you want to survive.

What's the Same: You don't have to know the names to know the Tide. Every Alabama team of at least the past two decades, winners or losers, has shared the following traits to various degrees:

Mildly effective, fresh-faced quarterback entering second decade of same hairstyle. With respect to Andrew Zow, Tyler Watts carried the floppy-haired torch through the late nineties, even from the bench when necessary, because he knew tradition doesn't graduate. Brodie Croyle upped the ante, and John Parker Wilson has raised him a cowlick. When a 'Bama quarterback looks like this, verily you will know something very fundamental to Crimson Tide fundamentalism has died. (though, if you like the picture in that link, you'll love this).

Physical embodiment of platonic running back ideal. Jimmy Johns, as a positional prerequisite, is 6-2, 225 and runs sub-4.5, but to opponents he's just the same hulking, sleek chunk of concentrated crimson meat that's been punishing their tacklers ad nauseum on an annual basis their entire adult lives. The corollary is that every one of these fleet adoni winds up in some way ailing (oh, poor, awesome Ahmaad Galloway and Santonio Beard) or caught in some kind of lurch among three identical intimidators who struggle to find a dominant rhythm over an entire season. Even Shaun Alexander struggled through injuries before his breakout season in 1998. The only exception to the tank-ish plowhorses, because of his size, was Shaud Williams, who actually was the most dangerous of the lot since Alexander. That is, until Johns is full time, no doubt. Or Ali Sharief, or Glen Coffee, or Roy Upchurch or, you know, whoever.

Any of them can play and is assured of being very good (900-1,200 yards in a healthy season), but is about equally certain in this tradition of being an assembly line guy - that is, outside of Alabama, the rest of the SEC may remember Jimmy Johns, may respect Jimmy Johns, but will almost certainly not distinguish Jimmy Johns' efforts from his predecessors' in the long term. Just to see the dude from a defensive perspective is to fear him, though.

Immovable front seven. Last year was one of the weaker efforts from the 'Bama front, which allowed four yards per carry in conference games and was substantially the worst in the SEC at creating problems in opposing backfields - worse than Ole Miss, worse than Kentucky - as measured by sacks and tackles for loss, two categories `Bama failed to put any player in the top 134.

But the defense was second in the country in yards allowed in 2004 and 2005, and Saban will try to revive that success by installing the 3-4, betraying his NFL roots. No other SEC team currently runs the 3-4 as a base, and whoever Saban plans to put in the middle of the line will be huge but also exceedingly green. Behind him, though Prince Hall was well short of the typical 'Bama middle linebacker, he is the leading tackler, made more plays as the season progressed and ought to fit the Saleem Rasheed/Marvin Constant/Cornelius Wortham/Freddie Roach mold more adequately as a sophomore, potbelly and all.

Undersized Wide Receiver/IEDs. David Palmer, Antonio Carter, Freddie Millons, pre-nightmare Tyrone Prothro - none was any kind of pro prospect towering over corners, none had the lights-out, all-America season as a receiver, the predictable result of playing in a run-first offense with perpetually on-the-fence quarterbacking, but all these little guys did a lot things well, returned kicks and could run a very long way with an easy screen pass. They didn't catch eight passes a game, but they could go off in a defense's face at any point and were respected accordingly. Currently, D.J. Hall is the same kind of player, though he got less attention for it last year (snubbed even from the 'Also Receiving Votes' category on the AP ballot and slipping into the second team of a ludicrously logjammed coaches' team) even while breaking Palmer's single-season yardage record on 62 catches. That may be in part because Hall failed to score over the second half of the season, a team-wide problem, but he did at least do this at Tennessee:

For all the attention still lavished on Prothro's catch (damn you, Prothro! And your fourth-and-long, Eagle-killing ways! - ed.), not enough people saw Hall's almost identical play. Not that he does that every week, of course, but clearly he could if he wanted.

Born to Run: Ken Darby was this sort of brutal workhorse of a back as described above, never any sort of a gamebreaker but still blessed enough in tackle-busting power to break 1,000 yards each of his first two seasons and average a healthy 4.7 against pretty nasty SEC defenses while becoming the most un-tackleable back in NCAA Football video game history. Even when teamwide totals dipped in `05, Darby pounded on as an individual force. He gets four line starters back last year, though, and hits a wall - usually, in the literal sense, in the form of opposing fronts, which held the senior in check (his average dropped under four yards and he did not score a touchdown) and delivered Alabama's worst ground performance of the decade. In the SEC, only the league's eleventh-ranked defense (Ole Miss) allowed 'Bama over five yards per carry as a team, and winning teams held the Tide to 2.8 per carry, which drops further if more generous units from Hawaii and Oklahoma State aren't in the mix. `Bama as a team had two rushing touchdowns in conference play. Not in a game. In eight games.

Those are not a good numbers, and it was not a particularly good line, but the combination of new coaching, reversion to historical mean and upcoming young talent on the line - mainly Andre Smith and Antoine Caldwell - is reason to expect a formidable improvement. Again, the default expectation is that Alabama can run, and unless Parker Lewis Wilson regresses to the point he commands no respect as a passer, the expectation applies to Johns et al.

Overly Optimistic Spring Chatter: Good vibrations are so outrageously good with pictures of Coach Nick Saban holding up the 2003 mythical championship ball Photoshopped to put him in a crimson polo tacked up next to faded pictures of Coach Bryant (right where this used to be), Coach Nick Saban is taking every opportunity to head off the erection (heh - ed.) of a statue before the home opener. In Coach Nick Saban's esteemed mind, the Tide need more toughness, better conditioning, more versatility on offense, and more clear coaching responsibilities.

Blah blah, Coach Nick Saban. You are such a downer. The rest of the state thinks this:

Tyrone Prothro, meanwhile, underwent another surgery on his left leg and ankle just before the start of drills. His rehabilitation is described as "ongoing" and his eventual scholarship status in the air, but all signs are that he's rehabbing for an increasingly unlikely return this fall. SMQ will join the Alabama cheers if he does before resuming cursing him for life for that damn catch.

Alabama on YouTube: You may have guessed from its very liberal usage so far that there a jillion Alabama football-related clips to be found, but only one of them manages to capture the essence of an entire state this effortlessly, running the gamut from indoctrination of extremism in infants to unironic camouflage and enthusiastic lawnmowing in a minute and a half and coming complete with the extremely appropriate title, "This Is How You Raise Your Grandson - Roll Tide":

See also: The other three categories of Alabama YouTube, broadly, are composed of clips devoted to the very underwhelming wisdom of Bear Bryant, the recent hysteria accompanying the outbreak of Saban Mania, the unreal feats of George Teague and many, many odes to Crimson tradition at large. Bama fans will also enjoy this, in motion for a change, but should not click here or here (actually, that last one goes for everyone regardless of your affiliation).

Best-Case: Let us clear up quickly that Saban is not going undefeated out of the gate, in the best or any other case. Any 'Bama fans want to make a non-monetary wager on that, SMQ will listen and take the challenge. The Tide might have a chance to win any single game, though, and has six of the crucial variety: Arkansas, Georgia, Florida State, Tennessee, LSU and Auburn, four of those at home. Coming off a season in which it was outscored in six losses to winning teams by an average of five points, it would not take a monumental turnaround to take four games out of that stretch. Even if it wins ten, though, two of them will have to be over some combination of LSU, Auburn and Arkansas for any realistic hope at returning to the SEC Championship Game for the first time this decade. In that regard, Florida State would be the most "acceptable" loss.

Worst-Case: If it can go wrong enough to lose at home to Mississippi State, the promised land could still be a long, long way off. SMQ does not think Alabama can win all six of the big games above, but it can lose them all, and will have to stave off two tough midseason traps against Houston and Ole Miss, which played Alabama into overtime in Tuscaloosa last year and is universally regarded as "improving." They will not lose to Mississippi State again, and never lose to Vanderbilt, but there are no other very likely SEC wins. It could be as bad as 5-7, much worse than any of Shula's final three years, and another 2-6 diaster in-conference.

Non-Binding Forecast: Saban's average LSU team won in the eight/nine game range, which would be a good improvement for Alabama given its average win total since its last SEC championship, which is about six (6.4414285 from 2000 on, to be precise). That covers efforts by Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione and Mike Shula, all of whom had one ten-win season here, but the Tide is 8-19 against ranked teams since 2001, and that includes wins over Ole Miss, Southern Miss and Texas Tech, a 2-4 mark against Tennessee and 1-5 records against both LSU and Auburn. That's a lot to turn around at once. If Saban gets one of those trends heading in Alabama's favor, it will be a positive turn, but there are too many tough turns to make against this schedule to expect more than 8-4, and 5-3 in the league.