1. The preseason prognostication for Alabama is all over the board, with Phil Steele being the most optimistic: 2nd in the SEC West. I agree with him in saying the LSU-Alabama winner will win the division. What are the expectations from the Alabama fan base? Do those expectations differ from the consensus of Alabama bloggers?
It's hard to get a read on the consensus of the Alabama fanbase. Many believe Alabama's fans to be incredibly unreasonable and have expectations that are too high too soon. However, there is also a sizeable portion of the fanbase that knows Nick Saban does not walk on water and that he can't merely appear on the sidelines and have everything fixed and perfected in his first season in Tuscaloosa. My personal take (and I've seen this echoed by many others) is that an 8-4 regular season is about what people are expecting this year. Anything less would be a bit of a disappointment, though it is certainly possible. I see Alabama as having two games they should unquestionably win (Western Carolina and Louisiana-Monroe), four that they should win (Houston, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt) and then there are six that could easily go either way (Arkansas, Florida State, Georgia, LSU, Tennessee, Auburn.) While Alabama will unquestionably be the underdog in most (if not all) of those six, they are certainly winnable. If we pick up two of those six, I think that's a realistic expectation for his first season. His unquestionably a better coach and game manager than Mike Shula so I think 8-4 is quite a realistic outlook.
2. What lesser known players are poised to have breakout seasons in 2007? Why?
These kinds of questions are always difficult because it is hard to know how players with little or no game experience will turn out. I think a few young players could step up and shine including Roy Upchurch, Terry Grant and Javier Arenas. They've all show potential in the limited time they've gotten or in scrimmages and they could certainly give us more options on an offense that didn't have a lot of options. There are others, but I don't pretend to be Phil Steele, who I think actually can see into the future.
3. I believe John Parker Wilson has the tools and the weapons around him to challenge for 1st Team All-SEC. What are your thoughts on Wilson and your expectations?
He produced fairly good numbers last year for a sophomore QB that had to run for his life nearly every time the ball was snapped. Assuming he gets better line protection this year I imagine we could really see him turn into a fine QB. One thing he does need to do better is protect the ball. There were times last year where he threw it up for grabs when he should've taken a sack and other times he should've taken a sack and protected the ball but coughed up fumbles trying to produce a miracle. Making smarter decisions in those circumstances comes with experience and he has a full season under his belt so hopefully we'll see improvement in that area. Like I said though, with better line protection and better ball protection I think he can be a real threat given that he has two great targets in DJ Hall and Keith Brown.
4. What kind of environments do you expect for home games against LSU and Tennessee?
I imagine both of those games are going to be completely insane. Tennessee has always been a game that has fired up the crowds at Bryant-Denny, but I imagine given the hope that's in the air with Nick Saban on the sidelines that the passion should be increased many times over. LSU is also a team that people have never had trouble getting fired up for, but given the way Les Miles has been shooting his mouth off I imagine things will be crazy unless they take us out of the game early. I'm just happy I have tickets for both.
5. Are you personally worried about Nick Saban's trend of leaving jobs are 4 years, or less?
Yes and no. Yes due to the fact that it is a trend that can't be ignored and for the fact that he could quit tomorrow and we'd still have to pay him for the full contract. The Alabama Athletic Department definitely got the short end of the stick in the deal. I say no though because Saban's very existence (combined with his handsome salary) has seemed to rub the entire college football world the wrong way. He certainly isn't going back to the NFL and not many other schools could pay him more, much less actually would pay him more. Even if he doesn't win a national championship here and splits in four years, if he wins an SEC Championship or two and leaves us stacked with recruits like he did LSU, I'd be okay with that I think.
6. If Alabama could only win 1 game, and 1 game only, in 2007, who would you like it to be against? Why?
Auburn without a doubt. Losing five in a row to them has been miserable and putting an end to their streak would be both a joy and a relief. I obviously don't fancy losing to LSU or Tennessee, but I could handle those better this year than I could losing to Auburn again. In 2005, I would have answered this question with Tennessee, but now it is all Auburn.
7. What kind of changes will the Tide see on defense in the transition to Kevin Steele in terms of both alignment and theory?
I'm not sure calling this season "a transition to Kevin Steele" is completely accurate. Alabama will be running Saban's system, and Steele was brought in because of his exemplary work with the Florida State linebackers and because Saban's system relies heavily on them. That being said, Steele's hire is a huge boost for both Saban's system and the guys already on the team. The FSU linebackers over the last few years were the heart and soul of that terrific defense, and they played like they would rather tackle than breathe. It's this kind of coaching ability that makes him ideal for a system so dependent on the linebackers. With only three down linemen, it's the role of the "jack" linebacker to both act as a rush end and play in space like a traditional LB. Guys like Keith Saunders and Zeke Knight are perfect for this, since both are physical enough to rush the passer but neither really has the size to play on the line, and both are also fast/athletic enough to play both the run and the pass out in space. I suppose the easiest way to answer your question is to say that Alabama will shift to a 3-4 alignment instead of the typical 4-3, and will be more complex than the simplistic "do one thing and do it better than anyone else" philosophy we saw from Joe Kines the past few seasons. That's not to take away from Kines, of course, considering he produced two of the best defenses in the country and even had a green unit with no depth up front ranked in the top 25 last year in total defense, but his strategies were so dependent on sound, fundamental football that it took players the caliber of DeMeco Ryans, Roman Harper, et al to be dominant in it. Given one more season, he would have certainly had these guys whipped into shape and schooled in the proper techniques to be dominant again but, alas, it was not to be. Enter Saban and Steele, two defensive masterminds who love a good blitz just as much, and probably more, than any other defensive coach in the country. Saban inherits an Alabama team that is very thin in the front seven (we have a converted center starting at NT), but deep, talented, and fast in the secondary. He's said several times that a lot of what we'll see this year will be done out of a nickel package to take advantage of the talent among the DBs. This isn't too far removed from the 3-4 alignment he likes, but using a nickelback as a fourth linebacker will probably pose some problems against the run. I'm not overly familiar with his time at Miami, but what I know from watching the Saban defenses at LSU is that they are both fast and disciplined, and I expect the Alabama defense to be no different. I also expect to see some more complex blitzes from the new schemes. Kines rarely disguised his blitzes but he had coached his players so well that opposing offenses couldn't stop them. With Saban, I imagine we'll see a lot more zone blitzing, and probably far more man coverage than we were used to last season.
So, there you have it. Very eloquent, thought out answers to 7 burning questions about Alabama. I wish I would have included a question about the vibe around the team this summer in the weight room, but I didn't. I'll try to set up a dialogue between myself and RBR as we roll into the 3rd week in October.