SEC West: Alabama

Brodie Croyle was one of college football's premier quarterbacks last fall, yet Alabama still finished seventh among Southeastern Conference teams in total offense and eighth in scoring offense. Now that Croyle has moved on to the NFL, you'd figure the Tide attack will collapse in 2006.

Maybe not, though.

Alabama still has one of the NCAA's top rushers in Kenneth Darby. The 5-11, 205-pounder ran for 1,000 yards each of the past two seasons, including 1,242 in 2005. In addition, the top four receivers from last fall return, led by D.J. Hall (48 catches, 676 yards) and Keith Brown (34 catches, 642 yards).

Moreover, game-breaking wideout Tyrone Prothro (17 catches, 352 yards) is back from the broken leg that sidelined him for most of 2005. Alabama averaged 29.6 points in five games with Prothro, just 16.4 in seven games without him.

If the Tide can just find a quarterback to fill Croyle's shoes, the attack could be pretty decent in '06. The likely successor is John Parker Wilson. The good news: He posted a better passer efficiency rating last fall (198.47) than Croyle (132.78). The bad news: Wilson attempted just 11 passes all year, completing 7, so his efficiency rating is virtually meaningless.

Alabama ranked No. 2 nationally in total defense and No. 1 in scoring defense last fall but was gutted by graduation losses. Defensive end Mark Anderson, linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Freddie Roach, safeties Roman Harper and Charlie Peprah were all drafted by NFL teams. They will be missed big-time.

The best of the stop unit's returnees is linebacker Juwan Simpson. He ranked fourth on the tackle chart last fall with 64 stops, including 5.5 for lost yardage. He also intercepted a couple of passes.

Bama's special teams could be the best in the league. Jamie Christensen returns after booting 16 field goals last fall, and the afore-mentioned Prothro is the SEC's most dangerous return specialist. He was averaging 27.6 yards on kickoff returns and 7.4 yards on punt returns at the time of his injury last fall.

Alabama plays all four of its non-conference foes – Hawaii, Louisiana-Monroe, Duke and Florida International – at home. The road slate is rugged, though, featuring trips to Arkansas, Florida, Tennessee and LSU. Given this, plus the loss of Croyle and the heart of the 2005 defense, Bama is unlikely to approach last year's 10-2 record. If it does, Mike Shula should be National Coach of the Year.

TOMORROW: My take on Ed Orgeron's Ole Miss Rebels.


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