Crystal Gazing

Columnist Thomas Murphy, who covers all Alabama sports as beat writer for the Mobile Register, makes an educated guess at the future for Crimson Tide sports.

Gazing into the crystal ball, in chronological order, for Alabama's athletic teams:

SOFTBALL: Stephanie VanBrakle is quite often a woman among girls. If college softball had the same kind of pipeline to the pros as the boy ballers, VanBrakle would have been gone after her junior year.

That being said, it is on VanBrakle's strong right arm that Alabama's season rests. Of course Patrick Murphy's hard-hitting crew -- statistically on its way to being one of his very best -- can also alter the outcome of games, but pitching is such a determining factor in this sport.

Special shout-outs to senior Staci Ramsey and Dominique Accetturo, who have teamed with their classmate VanBrakle to lead a youngish group of hitters into being an SEC force. The Tide has had nice battles over the years with LSU, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee for supremacy in the SEC, and they seem well suited to grabbing the conference crown this season.

The opinion here: Alabama wins the SEC regular season and tournament titles, powers into the Women's College World Series by winning an NCAA regional at home, and goes on to finish a program-best third place in Oklahoma City.

BASEBALL: The Crimson Tide's SEC start, after some shaky, non-offensive non-conference losses, has been eye-opening. As long as Wade LeBlanc and the young arms on the staff stay on their course, the Tide will be tough team to beat. Their nine losses have come by an average margin of 2.4 runs per loss, none worse than the consecutive four-run beatings administered in a sweep at Nebraska.

The major concern for this team is stringing together hits, particularly the ones toward the end that drive in runs, against the better pitching staffs. This weekend's series in South Carolina, where the Tide has never won a three-game set, will be a nice indicator as to whether Bama's bats can produce in tight games.

At its current pace, Alabama is in line to grab one of the two or three regional host sites the SEC should be afforded. The Tide has already won a series against Mississippi State, its top competition in the West Division, so after the USC series, the schedule lightens up a tad -- if you can call a road set in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, lightening up.

When it's all said and done, this crystal ball says the Tide finishes 18-12 in the SEC, in second place in the SEC West, wins an NCAA regional, but loses a Super Regional series to fall just shy of the CWS.

FOOTBALL: Moving the sticks consistently could be an issue with this club under new starter John Parker Wilson. But the Tide showed something in its spring game that was encouraging: Wilson's timing on a third-and-4 quick out to D.J. Hall for six yards was impeccable. The play came against cornerback Eric Gray and the execution was perfect. Alabama will need a lot more where that came from next fall.

I think the offensive line will be perceptibly better next season, and the running game will produce considerably more than the 143 yards per game it averaged last year. However, the Tide will almost certainly have many more than the 12 turnovers it compiled in 2005.

Defensively, it will be hard to duplicate the numbers put up by the last two veteran units. Seven new starters producing the same cohesion and results as the experienced seniors is asking a lot.

Outside the field-goal kicking, which should be better with Jamie Christensen on the boot, the special teams have a lot of question marks.

Throw in what may be the toughest schedule in the SEC, and the Tide has serious work on its hands.

The prediction here is an 8-4 record (including a win over Auburn) and a Chick-Fil-A Bowl berth. Of course we reserve the right to adjust this prognostication after fall camp concludes.

BASKETBALL: This is how the mid-majors do it. Sprinkling in battle-tested seniors and juniors to go along with those talented freshman.

Not since Erwin Dudley decided to return for his senior year in 2002-03 has Mark Gottfried welcomed back such a veteran team. Just based on the fact that big men Jermareo Davidson and Richard Hendrix return with junior point guard Ron Steele and rising star Alonzo Gee will create high expectations for this club. Add in a redshirted Yamene Coleman, a solid ball-handler in Brandon Hollinger, and a small cast of freshmen and other redshirts and you've got depth as well.

Had Steele's 3-point attempt gone down against UCLA, who knows, maybe the Crimson Tide would have been writing that Hollywood script all the way to Indianapolis. The players should recognize it's all about chemistry and teamwork after watching Florida's run to the title.

Having a healthy Steele all season will be huge for this team.

Minimum expectations in this crystal ball: SEC West title and an appearance in the program's second Elite Eight in four years.

NCAA HOOPS: Just a reminder. We called it right on the money here last week, giving Florida and UCLA the nods in the national semifinals and crowning the Gators the NCAA champions. Yeah, even a blind rabbit finds a carrot every now and then.

Editor''s Note: Thomas Murphy, the Alabama beat writer for the Mobile Register, is a contributor to 'BAMA Magazine and

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