Alabama preview

LSU and Auburn clearly have the most returning talent in the Southeastern Conference's Western Division. But new coach Nick Saban's Alabama Crimson Tide has enough firepower to make things interesting.

John Parker Wilson is as efficient as any quarterback in the SEC. Coming off a fine 2006 season, he underscored this point by completing 18 of 36 passes for 244 yards and two touchdowns (without an interception) before a sellout crowd of 92,138 in Bama's spring game.

Wilson should be even more efficient in 2007, thanks to the return of star wideouts DJ Hall (62 catches for 1,056 yards) and Keith Brown (44 for 590). The Tide also returns all five starters in an offensive line that projects to be the league's finest. The question is: Who'll join Wilson in the backfield?

Last fall's No. 1 tailback (Ken Darby) is gone, but Jimmy Johns probably represents an upgrade anyhow. For instance, Darby did not score a touchdown in 2006 and managed just 26 net yards on 14 carries against Tennessee. Johns came off the bench against the Vols to net 37 yards on just three attempts.

Bama lost a strong 1-2 punch at fullback (Le'Ron McClain and Tim Castille) but, with nine starters back on offense, should be a much more productive unit than it was a year ago.

New defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, a Tennessee aide under Johnny Majors in the 1980s, installed the 3-4 in the spring. Prince Hall, a Freshman All-SEC pick in 2006, is a budding star at one inside linebacker spot but he came out of spring drills paired with walk-on Darren Mustin.

Bama also is a little shaky in the defensive front. Brian Motley, who began spring drills as a the No. 3 center on offense, switched to defense and wound up being listed No. 1 at nose tackle by spring's end.

Alabama should be solid in the kicking game. Steady Jamie Christensen returns as the placement specialist after nailing 13 of 17 field-goal tries last fall.

Bama was so bad last fall that it lost 24-16 at home to Mississippi State. The fact 92,000 zealots showed up for the spring game suggests the Tide faithful expect an immediate turnaround in '07.

They just might get it.

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