SEC PREVIEWS: Bama reloading

As if winning five straight national titles wasn't enough to declare the Southeastern Conference's college football supremacy, the league managed to take it one step further last season when the BCS title game matchup between Alabama and LSU guaranteed a sixth straight national champion from the SEC before the championship game was even played.

So how does seven in a row sound? Well it will be hard to bet against the SEC continuing its dominance, especially with LSU returning 15 starters from last year's squad and BCS champ Alabama still loaded on the offensive side even with the loss of standout running back Trent Richardson.

Yet the big story in SEC Football 2012 is the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M to the conference, something that figures to make it even tougher to get through the league schedule unscathed. While neither Mizzou nor the Aggies are expected to contend for SEC divisional titles, they both bring solid programs to the league. Missouri was ranked No. 1 in the country five years ago before losing to Oklahoma in the 2007 Big 12 title game, and A&M's Kyle Field is one of the most difficult venues in the country for visiting teams, something Florida, Arkansas and LSU will have to contend with this fall.

The Scout.com publishers believe that LSU and Georgia will repeat as division champions this year with LSU picked to win the SEC Championship. Previews of all 14 SEC teams are about to be featured on GamecockAnthem.com, and today we look at Alabama.



SEC WEST

Alabama (PREDICTED FINISH: 2ND IN WEST)


The good news for Alabama football opponents is that the 2012 Crimson Tide is not the same team that won the 2011 national championship. Four members of that squad were first-round NFL draft choices, two others were picked in the second round, and eight in all were selected. Another half dozen members of that team were signed to free agent contracts by NFL teams.

Nevertheless, expect Bama to once again be one of the top teams in the Southeastern Conference, and, thereby, one of the best in the nation. In an extraordinary confluence last year, Alabama was able to win the BCS National Championship even though the Tide was not the team with the best record in the SEC; not even in the Western Division of the league. Almost no one doubts, though, that Alabama and LSU were the nation's two best teams. They fought to a 6-6 draw in regulation in regular-season play before the Tigers won the game in overtime. Many expect this year's league title to come down to the Nov. 3 contest in Baton Rouge.

The losses to graduation and/or the NFL notwithstanding, Alabama does return some weapons, starting with the Offensive MVP of the BCS title game, quarterback AJ McCarron. In his first season as a starter, McCarron completed 219-of-328 pass attempts (66.8 per cent) for 2,634 yards and 16 touchdowns with only five interceptions. The bad news is that the top four receivers from '11 are gone. Bama will rebuild its receiving corps around wide receivers Kevin Norwood and Christion Jones and three-year starting tight end Michael Williams.

It's not the passing game that drives Alabama' offense, however. After having had Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram starting for two years and Doak Walker Award winner Trent Richardson (the third overall pick in the NFL draft) replacing him last season, the Tide is looking for a new tailback. Eddie Lacy was the backup last year and heir apparent, but he's recovering from surgery to repair a turf toe injury. Jalston Fowler was No. 3 last year and No. 1 in the spring, while true freshman T.J. Yeldon was a standout in spring practice, winning the award as the spring game's MVP. Last year Lacy averaged 7.1 yards per carry and Fowler 6.9. The best news for the offense is that four of five starters on the offensive line return, headed by 2011 Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones, who is moving from left tackle to center.

The 2011 Alabama defense was among the best in college football history, leading the nation in every major statistical category, including scoring defense, rush defense, pass defense, total defense, and pass efficiency defense. The Bama stop corps gave up nine touchdowns for the year – three rushing and six passing. Consider that Clemson gave up 10 touchdowns to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. Again, though, the Bama losses were substantial, including first-round draft choices safety Mark Barron, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, and linebacker Dont'a Hightower.

The Tide does have a good nucleus in which to build around, including defensive tackle Jesse Williams, defensive end Damion Square, linebackers Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley, cornerback Dee Milliner, and safety Robert Lester. Moreover, Alabama gave plenty of playing time to back-ups last year; and Bama recruiting in recent years has filled many of the vacancies, including adding junior college transfer Deion Belue in January.

Alabama special teams have been solid, though not spectacular. Coverage and return teams benefit by Bama having many good, fast players available for kicking team duty. There will be new return men for kickoffs and punts (Christion Jones heads the candidates), but otherwise the specialists remain the same. – punter Cody Mandell, short distance placekicker Jeremy Shelley, long distance placekicker Cade Foster, and snapper Carson Tinker. Many expect incoming freshman Robert Griffith, rated the No. 1 placekicker prospect in the nation by Scout.com, to compete.

Bama has a difficult schedule, including the Cowboys Kickoff Classic in Arlington, Texas, against Michigan. SEC road games are against Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, and LSU. Conference games in Tuscaloosa are against Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, and Auburn.

PREVIOUS PREVIEWS:

EAST
Florida (3)
Missouri (4)
Tennessee (5)
Vanderbilt (6)
Kentucky (7)

WEST
Arkansas (3)
Auburn (4)
Mississippi State (5)
Texas A&M (6)
Mississippi (7)

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