LAST YEAR: 10-2 (6-2 SEC West) with a win over Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl.
EXPERIENCE: Alabama returns 13 starters and 38 lettermen.
TEAM STRENGTHS: As long as Joe Kines is the defensive coordinator, Alabama will be a fiercely competitive defensive team. Alabama ranked first in the SEC and second nationally in total defense in 2005, giving up only 255.1 yards per game. Alabama ranked first in the nation in pass defense and third in rushing defense, plus the Crimson Tide was the best nationally in scoring defense (10.7 points per game). Seven starters are gone from that unit and the secondary has been gutted. Normally, that would be cause for alarm but Kines has plenty of athletic replacements and his units are always known to be fundamentally sound. The best defensive player is also the team's best player, linebacker Juwan Simpson, a 6-3, 222-pounder with tremendous speed who might be the best linebacker in pass coverage in the nation. Tackle Jeremy Clark is a 305-pounder that is at his best stuffing the run. In the secondary, corner Ramzee Robinson (5-10, 190, senior) is good enough to take on any receiver in the SEC one-on-one.
Four starters return on the offensive line and the fifth will probably be true freshman Andre Smith, likely to start at the left guard position. Alabama's offense isn't complicated. Shula wants his team to pound it between the tackles and force teams to commit the safeties to stopping the run, leaving Bama's fast, athletic wide receivers one-on-one. D.J. Hall (6-3, 190, junior) caught 48 passes last season and Keith Brown (6-3, 192, junior) caught 34. Both have enough speed to stretch defenses but they have to step up their production this year.
The top offensive threat is tailback Kenneth Darby (5-11, 205, senior), who has rushed for 2,489 yards in his career and has back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. He's an all-purpose back that excels in catching the ball on wheel routes out of the backfield. Darby has 44 receptions in the past two seasons. He's a first team All-SEC selection.
TEAM WEAKNESSES: No one questions that John Parker Wilson (6-2, 207, redshirt freshman) is talented and capable. He's got the arm and the smarts to be very good. The question is how will he respond when he's facing Southeastern Conference defenses? Until he proves he has settled into the position, this is the most glaring weakness on the team.
Tyrone Prothro's status is still unknown. He's recovering from that horrible broken leg suffered in the fourth quarter against Florida last year and the prognosis is a slow recovery. Without Prothro, Alabama's kick and punt return games are average. When healthy, he's also the best Alabama has at turning nothing into something on the offensive side.
On defense, finding replacements for linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Freddie Roach is concern number one. Alabama runs such a disciplined scheme with linemen responsible for gaps, freeing up the linebackers to make the big plays. Matt Collins (6-1, 241, junior) and Terrence Jones (6-1, 220, senior) have been around awhile and they've gotten into games so they have experience. The big question is can they make plays?
The secondary was gutted so there are three newcomers but they've all seen the field enough that this could turn into a team strength before the year is over. It's time for Simeon Castille (6-1, 188, junior) to shed the potential label and prove he's a real playmaker.
THREE KEYS TO SUCCESS IN 2006: The first key for Bama's success is to find a pair of linebackers to replace Ryans and Roach. Alabama's defensive approach is stuff the run and force the pass so adequate playmakers have to be found at two of the three linebacker positions.
The second key to success is putting John Parker Wilson in situations where he can succeed early in the season to build his confidence. He doesn't have Croyle's arm strength, but he has enough mobility to avoid sacks and get positive yards when the pocket breaks down. The first three games are critical for Wilson. He can't afford to go to Fayetteville and Gainesville still feeling his way along.
Alabama's third key for success is continued improvement on the offensive line. Alabama has enough talent at the skill positions to put some points on the scoreboard but the line has to give Wilson time and has to show that it can consistently open holes for Darby.
THE SCHEDULE: With a brand new quarterback to break in, you couldn't ask for a better way to start than with Hawaii, Vandy and Louisiana-Monroe in Tuscaloosa before back to back roadies at Arkansas and Florida. With the exception of the season finale with Auburn, the eight-game home schedule is a dream. Alabama should do no worse than 7-1 at home. The other two roadies are Tennessee and LSU so the SEC schedule is not exactly conducive to title aspirations.
OUTLOOK FOR 2006: Slowly but surely, Mike Shula is rebuilding Alabama back into a consistent SEC power. He's surrounded himself by older assistant coaches that have been around the block a few times, and they've stayed the course with a blue-collar game plan of ball control offense and tough, aggressive defense. Bama isn't going to beat anyone with razzle-dazzle. The emphasis is play the percentages, stay fundamentally sound at all times and don't turn the ball over. It may not look pretty but it does get results. Even with seven starters gone from the Southeastern Conference's number one defense in 2005, don't expect too much of a dropoff in production. There's not much in the way of offense that Joe Kines hasn't seen and prepared for in his career. He's one of the best defensive game-planners in the nation. The defense will definitely hold its own. The question is can the offense step it up? When Prothro went down last year, Alabama's offensive production slowed to a crawl. If the offense can find a way to generate more than last year's 21.9 points per game, the Crimson Tide could have an exceptional season.
NEXT UP: LSU, Florida's October 7 opponent at The Swamp,