Why Is Alabama Number 1 In Nation?

Much remains to be accomplished in this 2008 Alabama football season, but the extraordinary improvement in the Crimson Tide in Coach Nick Saban's second year is obvious. How has Bama gone from a .500 team to number one in the nation? Here is the first in a series examining this year's Tide.

Alabama was 6-6 in regular season play a year ago. With one game remaining on the 2008 regular season schedule, the Crimson Tide is 11-0 and ranked number one in the nation. Instead of wondering if there is a minor bowl game in the offing, Bama fans are watching results across the nation to see what will affect Alabama national championship hopes.

It's easy for followers to look ahead. Alabama Coach Saban and his staff and players will be looking solely at Auburn when the Tide resumes practice Monday. With an open date this week, Bama closes out regular season play a week from Saturday hosting Auburn in Bryant-Denny Stadium. Kickoff will be at 2:30 p.m. CST with national television coverage by CBS.

A number of factors go into football success. There is the luck factor, including injury luck (and Alabama has been very fortunate to have had few lost game days by key players) and schedule luck, the most challenging opponents this year (Clemson, Georgia, Tennessee, LSU) perhaps not being as strong as expected. From there would go an organizational chart showing recruiting and strength and conditioning and complications of all sort.

Perhaps the difference in one game is the job the scout team did in preparing the team, or the work done by the graduate assistant coaches and video staff in preparing scouting reports.

There is the "first to second improvement" adage at a different level. Early in a football season there is much discussion of the adage that a team improves the most between the first game and the second game. The same principle applies first year to second year. Alabama players were new to the Nick Saban process in 2007. Now that process has taken affect, particularly the off-season conditioning program.

So the question of "Why has Alabama improved so much?" requires a long, complicated, and probably incomplete answer. Nevertheless, the question is asked.

Beyond the above, a team must perform in all three areas—offense, defense and special teams.

In this first look at Alabama improvement, we examine areas of offense.

Alabama expected to have a good offensive line this season. The Crimson Tide front includes junior left tackle Andre Smith, considered to be among the top linemen in the nation. It also includes senior Antoine Caldwell, who was ranked just below the top tier of players at the most critical offensive line position, center. Also returning were senior right guard Marlon Davis and junior left guard Mike Johnson, formerly a right tackle.

That left one offensive line position to be filled, the right tackle spot that has been something of an Achilles heel for the Bama offense in recent years. Throughout the spring we heard that Drew Davis was "the biggest surprise" for Nick Saban, but many were skeptical that this fourth-year junior with minimal game experience could do the job.

Alabama linemen are high on their position coach, Joe Pendry, and he and Drew Davis get high marks. The offensive line as a whole has performed well. Bama defensive line star Terrence Cody says the best center he has faced has been Caldwell in practice. And Drew Davis has twice late this season been honored as a player of the week by Tide coaches.

Alabama was expected to be strong at tight end, and so there is no surprise that seniors Nick Walker and Travis McCall have been solid performers. Indeed, in most games both start. Saban had said from the beginning he likes to use tight ends in his offense.

Alabama lost three veteran wide receivers to graduation and there was concern about this group prior to the season. That is, prior to Julio Jones living up to his reputation as the top wide receiver prospect in the nation. Jones has been the premier wide receiver in Alabama's offense from Day One, eclipsing veterans like Mike McCoy, Nikita Stover and Earl Alexander. Circumstances (mostly good circumstances, such as being ahead of the opponent, have reduced Alabama's need to pass as much this year, but when the Tide needs to throw, Jones has been clutch.

With Alabama among the nation's best rushing teams, it's difficult to remember the concerns about the tailback position prior to the start of the season. Terry Grant had been the starter for much of 2007, but he had been injured late in the year and undergone surgery. Glen Coffee had some success in '07, but he had been one of the four suspended Tiders and he also had health issues, a bum shoulder that required surgery. Roy Upchurch showed promise, but he had spent time in Nick Saban's doghouse.

There have been pleasant surprises in the tailback corps. Although Grant hasn't made his way back into the playing rotation, Coffee has been outstanding, among the Southeastern Conference leaders. When called upon, Upchurch has been a difference-maker. And a newcomer looks like the tailback model of Alabama's future. True freshman Mark Ingram has a combination of power and speed that landed him firmly in the playing rotation.

But the biggest surprise has been the play of quarterback John Parker Wilson, who has removed the "but" phrase that followed the long, impressive list of Alabama passing records he has been accumulating. In his third year as a starter, with a third quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, Wilson has been the ultimate team player. Although he has added to gaudy passing numbers in his senior year, he has been more notable for his leadership and decision-making as Alabama has nearly doubled the win totals of his previous two seasons as starter.

Most of the credit goes to Wilson, a competitive and competent athlete. But a share goes to Jim McElwain, who came in as Bama's new quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator and put Wilson in a comfort level that has led to success.

Football is a team game (indeed, teams within teams), and on the Alabama offensive unit there are numerous areas to praise for 2008 Crimson Tide success. The truism that a quarterback gets too much credit when things go well and too much blame when things go bad notwithstanding, our vote for the biggest reason on offense for Bama success this season is the improvement of John Parker Wilson.

NEXT: Special Teams

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