No 'cake walk' in year two

College football fans, especially those in the SEC, are virtually no different in regards to football than they are to love.

Spring brings forth the green leaves on the trees, the birds and bees fluttering around and doing things that birds and bees do -- and it also brings out unmitigated optimism in fans, no matter the condition of the team they support.

For Alabama fans, this is especially significant, as the Crimson Tide returns a reasonable number of starters and top backups from its 2003 team.

The Tide also boasts several top "home run hitters" returning, such as quarterback Brodie Croyle, linebacker Demeco Ryans, cornerback Charlie Peprah and a stable of talented running backs.

Trying to temper enthusiasm among Alabama fans is like trying to get a dog not to drag home the dead opossum it found in the neighbor's yard.

Inevitably, the dog will return with his treasure, and your yard will stink because of it. Just as inevitably, Alabama fans will expect nothing less than a 13-0 season (because, of course, Alabama is going to win the SEC Championship Game and the BCS National Championship Game). And the coaches and players will be the worse for it when -- not if -- Alabama loses a game in 2004.

Any discussion of Alabama's good points -- and there are several -- need to be balanced with Alabama's bad. For instance:

Croyle is making good progress after off-season shoulder surgery. (AP photo)

Good: Alabama returns QB Brodie Croyle, who will finally be healthy come fall.

Bad: Alabama's offensive line figures to be one of the three worst in the conference, and that's including the expected return of LT Wesley Britt from a serious leg injury.

Good: Alabama's starting linebacking corps might be the finest it's been since the middle of Gene Stallings' tenure in Tuscaloosa.

Bad: Depth goes about one player deep at each position, if that, and several of Alabama's top playmakers lack the size of their SEC counterparts.

Good: Alabama's special teams -- particularly the return units -- improved game by game in 2003 and had become a strength by the end of the year.

Bad: Alabama has no returning snapper or kickoff man; holder Alex Fox may win the kicking job, necessitating a new holder; punter Bo Freelend is still inconsistent, and no Alabama placekicker has yet shown the ability to hit the big kick when it matters.

Good: Alabama returns Charlie Peprah, Anthony Madison and Roman Harper as starters in the secondary, and top reserve Ramzee Robinson is having a tremendous spring.

Harper will handle one safety slot.

Bad: Alabama has no strong safety at this point, and lost top reserves Chris James and Eric Johnson before the start of the spring.

The biggest problem is that very little of this will matter to a significant portion of fans to whom winning should be guaranteed and the only question is by how much. Worse, when the disappointment finally comes, they will turn on coaches trying to right a struggling ship or players that, through no fault of their own, may not collectively be of the caliber of Alabama teams of the past.

In order for Alabama to make any significant progress over last year's 4-9 conflagration, the Tide must find the answers to the following questions:

Who is going to play safety?

The focus in spring has been primarily on the offensive line and wide receiving corps so far, but safety may be an even bigger question mark. Roman Harper will start somewhere, and coming out of the spring, either Thurman Ward or Carlos Andrews could start in the other slot.

Harper was inconsistent as a sophomore. Neither Ward nor Andrews, both fifth-year seniors, have proven capable of every-down duty in their three previous seasons. The depth situation is such that Bryan Kilpatrick, a walk-on from AISA school Monroe Academy, figures to see a lot of playing time.

Unless Bama's current experiment with Charlie Peprah at safety sticks, the safe bet is for signee Marcus Carter to get a good shot at starting as soon as he gets to campus in the fall.

Can Alabama field a capable offensive line?

The answer is up in the air until Wesley Britt's condition can be determined in fall practice. Until then, the likely answer is no.

The status of Britt's leg will be key.

The moves of Evan Mathis from tackle to guard and Kyle Tatum from defensive tackle to offensive tackle make things better, but an injury to heralded redshirt freshman Travis West has thrown the interior line situation into disarray. Center J.B. Closner had a disappointing sophomore campaign and is struggling this spring. Journeyman Danny Martz will likely be called upon to be the every-down answer at right guard. Until Britt returns, Chris Capps is the starting left tackle.

Offensive line performance (as well as questionably coached technique) was the offense's Achilles heel in 2003 and right now, things look worse, not better.

Who, if anyone, will step up at wide receiver?

Tyrone Prothro is a star in the making and Matt Caddell has separated himself from the pack to give Alabama a solid starting pair. But the top backups right now are 5'4" Brandon Brooks -- who was probably on his way to Scout Team Limbo until he made a late impact as a kick returner last year and got the coaches' attention -- and Matt Miller, a former walk-on quarterback.

More talented players like Will Roach, Damien Jones and Marcus McKnight have so far failed to break from the pack for a variety of reasons, while others (Scoop McDowell--apparently headed back to baseball and Tarry Givens) are also trailing.

Caddell has had a good spring.

Academic concerns may cost Alabama its most ready-to-play-now signee, Nikita Stover, once freshmen report. Alabama needs at least six and preferably eight dependable players to run its offense in the fall; right now, the Tide seems to have four.

Will special teams be special -- or even good?

Once coordinator Dave Ungerer learned his personnel after arriving late with Shula, Alabama's punting, coverage and return efforts steadily improved, and by the end of the year, had become a weapon. Placekicking never became a strength, but after Alex Fox replaced Gabe Giardina at holder and after snapper Nick Ridings shook out of a slump, it at least lifted itself from liability status.

This year, Ridings has graduated, Fox is in the mix at kicker and the lack of quality scholarshipped reserves is making the fielding of return and coverage teams a chore. Punter Bo Freelend is still probably going to be a touch erratic, but if two out of every three kicks bring rain and travel 60 yards like they were doing for a time late last year, Alabama will be okay there.

The biggest question marks are at kicker and holder.

Can Alabama keep key personnel healthy?

As of today, Alabama has zero scholarshipped tight ends ready to play. The Tide's top two quarterbacks are limited due to injuries sustained during game contact last season. Alabama is one injured offensive tackle, defensive tackle, receiver or safety away from potential doom.

Cavan is recovering from his second ACL surgery.

These are questions that the top SEC schools do not have to answer.

Can Alabama's coaches actually coach?

It's the area that few people really want to think about, but Mike Shula is still a rookie at the college game and the credentials and techniques of several assistants are, to be kind, either unproven or less than spectacular.

Setting expectations too low for too many years in a row is a death knell for top programs. Fans should never become complacent with mediocrity. But at the same time, setting expectations inordinately high puts undue pressure on players and coaches and creates an air of instability in off-seasons.

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