ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE
HEAD COACH: Nick Saban (114-65-1, 2nd year)
2007 RECORD: 7-6 (4-4 Southeastern Conference)
BOWL RESULT: Defeated Colorado 30-24 in Independence Bowl
RETURNING LETTERMEN: 49 (offense 22, defense 24, special teams 3)
RETURNING STARTERS: 17 (offense 9, defense 6, special teams 2)
PLAYERS TO WATCH: QB John Parker Wilson; RB Terry Grant; FS Rashad Johnson
SERIES RECORD: Alabama leads 10-8
LAST MEETING: Alabama defeated Arkansas 41-38 on Sept. 15, 2007 in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
MORE INFORMATION: www.rolltide .com
DID YOU KNOW?
Alabama coach Nick Saban recorded his 100th career collegiate victory in a 20-6 win over Tulane ... Alabama's schedule is about as tough as it gets with road games at Georgia, Tennessee and LSU ... The Tide ended the 2007 season with four straight losses, but defeated Colorado in the Independence Bowl ... Javier Arenas' 87-yard punt return for a touchdown against Tulane was the fourth of his career, tying the school record also held by David Palmer.
BY CHIP SOUZA
It doesn't take much for expectactions to skyrocket in Alabama, but this year Crimson Tide fans just might have reason to feel giddy.
There's a wealth of returning experience for the Tide, led by quarterback John Parker Wilson and eight other offensive starters. And although Alabama ended the 2007 regular season on a dismal four-game losing skid, the Tide did win its final game, a 30-24 victory over Colorado in the Independence Bowl.
"We didn't finish games. We didn't finish the season," said Alabama second-year coach Nick Saban in an Associated Press preview. "We probably played one complete game, and that was the Tennessee game. We were inconsistent and up and down, played up to the good teams, down to the bad ones. We were inconsistent within games. We had big leads and weren't able to keep them."
The momentum of a bowl win is always a boost heading into the offseason, the the Tide came out of the gate swining for the 2008 opener at No. 9 Clemson. Alabama landed a knockout blow in the form of a 34-10 victory that wasn't that close.
"I'm obviously very proud of our team," Saban said. "Finishing the game has been our motto for the season. (This game) epitomized that."
Alabama dominated almost every facet of the game, with Wilson going 22-of-30 for 180 yards, and the defense allowing just a field goal. Clemson's only touchdown came on a 96-yard kickoff return.
"The way we came out, the way we started, the way we maintained, in the second half they got that long kickoff and we could have folded but we came back and finished the game," Wilson said. " I think that says a lot about our guys."
Alabama jumped to No. 13 in the Associated Press College Football Poll following the win over Clemson. But the Tide struggled in a 20-6 win over Tulane the following week and is now No. 9 after beating Western Kentucky, 41-7, this past weekend while Arkansas got an unexpected bye because Hurricane Ike postponed a trip to Texas.
"It's a little disappointing. It's our goal to play with consistency ... but we were unable to do that," Saban said after the Tulane win. "We did not make progress as a team."
This is one unit that did not have to host a get aquainted party. There are only two new faces on the offensive side of the ball for Alabama, but one of those missing is stellar receiver D.J. Hall.
Wilson has been a starter for three years and has likely the best offensive line he's ever played behind. Alabama is also deep at running back. Wilson must find a way to cut down on mistakes (22 interceptions in two seasons). Offensive coordinator Jim McElwain said Parker is learning how to move forward after a mistake.
"That's the thing we've been talking about as a team, playing the next play," McElwain said. "Not worrying about anything that's happened in the past."
The backfield is deep and talented, led by sophomore Terry Grant, who rushed for almost 900 yards and eight touchdowns as a freshman. Freshman Mark Ingram led the Tide in the win over Clemson with 17 carries for 97 yards and junior Glen Coffee finished with 17 carries for 90 yards.
The play of the line will be key if the Tide hopes to win the SEC West for the first time since 1999.
"I feel like this is the first year that I can legitimately say that we can compete for the SEC West," center Antoine Caldwell said. "I feel like the talent we've got this year is more than I've ever seen since I've been here. The team's the closest it's been since I've been here.
"Talentwise, we've got everything. We've got the pieces to the puzzle. We're just looking forward to getting it done."
Tight end Nick Walker will take up some of the slack left by Hall, and his six catches for 67 yards and a score against Clemson was huge.
With six regulars back on defense, the Tide figure to be improved over last year.
Linebacker Rolando McClain recorded 75 tackles a year ago and will be a key to Alabama's success along with safety Rashad Johnson, who led the team with 94 tackles and six interceptions a year ago.
"We've got a lot of guys out there that are very athletic," defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said. "We've got a lot of guys that have the potential to fit into the pieces of the puzzle."
The Tide opened the season without linebacker Prince Hall, who was suspended for the first three games for violating team rules. But the unit dominated Clemson in the opener and did not allow a touchdown in either of the first two games. Look for a lot of freshmen, which was rated the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, to see a lot of time.
The secondary is spearheaded by corner Kareen Jackson and junior Marquis Johnson, who had a key interception against Clemson that led to a field goal.
ALABAMA SPECIAL TEAMS
There likely is no more dangerous returner in the SEC than Javier Arenas, who's 87-yard punt return for a touchdown against Tulane was the fourth of his career, tying David Palmer's school record.
Alabama also recorded a punt block by Roy Upchurch, which was picked up by Chris Rogers and returned 17 yards for a touchdown.
The kicking duties are again handled by Leigh Tiffin, whose struggles in a loss to Arkansas in 2006 are well documented. But Tiffin has been solid this season, although he was injured in the win over Tulane.
Against Clemson, Tiffin's 54-yard field goal gave Alabama the early lead and a huge momentum lift. The kick was the longest of Tiffin's career and the third-longest in school history. It was one of four field goals Tiffin kicked in the game.
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