Gauging Expectations

It's almost here. Tomorrow, the hype, wonders and worries will dissipate, replaced in most cases by answers, or at least information.

When the University of Alabama football team kicks off against Middle Tennessee State Saturday night, it will start answering the questions about its health, its freshmen, its specialists battling for playing time and its rebuilt offense.

One question not so easily answered, however, will be the expectations.

How high will they be?

How high should they be?

Those are tough questions.

Alabama is emerging from the grip of a difficult NCAA probation, one that has left Mike Shula's Crimson Tide with only 77 scholarship players after signing its first full 25-member scholarship class in four years.

And although the offense appears healthy with the returns of Brodie Croyle, Kenneth Darby and Tim Castille, and an already-stout defense appears deeper than it was a year ago, concerns remain.

Much of Alabama's newfound depth is talented, but young. If Croyle goes down, he'll be replaced by true freshman John Parker Wilson. True freshmen Glen Coffee, Jimmy Johns and Roy Upchurch will replace Darby if he's hurt again.

And that's just the beginning.

The potential for a good to great season exists, but a few isolated problems could send the Tide back into the same mire it experienced in 2004's .500 campaign.

Which brings us back to the expectations.

Some Alabama fans expect to win every game the Tide plays, no matter the opponent or the circumstances.

Let's just ignore them. They aren't realistic, at least not at this point in time.

A more realistic baseline is 6-5, with the ability to work upward from there.

Would 6-5 be progress? Absolutely not.

And it's not likely to happen this year.

Then again, who expected the massive rash of injuries that befell Shula's crew last year?

A 3-0 start and massive optimism turned, injury by injury, into a depressed morass of a finish, capped off by a loss to Minnesota in dismal, chilly Nashville on New Year's Eve.

Right now, this team is healthy, its frontline starters ready for the season. But if they get hurt again and the record slips accordingly, is anyone held accountable?

Who do you blame? Shula? Kent Johnston? Rich Johannigmeier? Murphy's Law says anything that can go wrong will, and anyone familiar with the 2004 edition of Alabama football would agree that it could happen again this year, too.

If it doesn't – and a rebuilt offensive line comes together – the Tide could rise back to old heights this year.

The nation's No.2 total defense from a year ago returns nine starters, losing only defensive end Todd Bates and middle linebacker Cornelius Wortham. And Joe Kines has plugged the gaps with senior linebacker Freddie Roach, who was essentially a 12th starter last year, and sophomore defensive end Wallace Gilberry, a freshman All-SEC pick a year ago.

Amazingly, they're even deeper than they were last year. Two starters – junior defensive tackle Jeremy Clark and junior cornerback Ramzee Robinson – have yielded their spots, at least temporarily, to Justin Britt and Simeon Castille, respectively. And while other starting spots aren't in danger, the depth behind them exists.

If the line protects Croyle, Darby, Castille and Co., and a group of young receivers and tight ends progresses as many expect, Alabama could become an SEC West darkhorse.

The Tide's talent is superior to that of Arkansas, Ole Miss and Mississippi State, and it remains to be seen how well Auburn will replace its entire backfield, now starring in the National Football League.

An upset here or there – and a big-name victory that has been so elusive the past few years – and Alabama could represent the SEC West in the Georgia Dome in early December, with a New Year's Day bowl bid all but assured by then.

At the very least, a late December trip back to Atlanta – and the Peach Bowl – seems like a reasonable goal. At least it would be inside, right?

The idea of New Year's Eve in Atlanta seems to define "reasonable expectation."

As much as Alabama fans want to trumpet their program's tradition, pomp and pageantry, memories don't replace scholarships and lost talent.

Slowly but surely, Mike Shula has the Tide on the road back. He went from 4-9 his rookie season to 6-6 last year, and 8-4 or 9-3 seems like the next good step.

Anything better than that is just icing on the cake, and don't let anyone tell you differently.

Of course, like everything, that's subject to change. High expectations are fine. Just don't be surprised if this group doesn't meet them.

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