Kirk McNair: Everything about a Nick Saban football program is meticulous, including the post-season analysis. The loss to Ohio State was more depressing than the other loss in a 12-2 season because the stakes were higher and because Alabama had poor execution in the Sugar Bowl. While there have been no major changes in scheme owing to the touchdown loss to Ohio State, there have been changes in the type personnel being used. Saban has been recruiting to have more edge rushers on defense. It also is likely the offense will look a bit different with the quarterback (whoever it may be) more a pro-style player than the spread-type quarterback Blake Sims was in 2014.2, Against Auburn, Missouri and Ohio State, Alabama allowed an average of 493.3 yards per game and quarterbacks completed 16 passes of 20 or more yards. Has the secondary improved this offseason?
McNair: Part of Saban’s analysis of 2014 was that Alabama’s faster pace on offense had the consequence of its defense being on the field for some 170 more plays than the previous year. And, he said, that seemed to affect defensive performance late in the year. Alabama ordinarily has been a well-conditioned team, but one emphasis of 2015 preparation was having some of the big men come back not quite so big, the better to hold up physically in a long season. Alabama has had good recruiting of secondary players, but has been victimized by three consecutive years of early defections to the NFL draft. Saban has indicated he is very pleased with secondary work this year with new coach Mel Tucker, former defensive coordinator of the Chicago Bears, working with defensive backs.3, With Blake Sims having graduated, how does the starting quarterback competition stack up (what are the strengths of the projected starting QB)?
McNair: Although the five-way battle for quarterback has not been resolved with less than a week before Saturday’s game, Alabama has reduced the field to three candidates – senior Jacob Coker, junior Alec Morris and sophomore Cooper Bateman. There is confidence in the Bama camp that quarterback play will be solid, in part because of the job Coach Lane Kiffin did last year in taking Blake Sims – a former running back, wide receiver, and mop-up quarterback – and turning him into a record-setting quarterback for the Tide. All of the candidates fit the traditional Saban mold of pro-style quarterbacks.
4, What’s the biggest concern right now for Alabama – the new quarterback, losing the top three receivers from last season or three new offensive line starters?
McNair: Alabama suffered big losses to graduation and the pro draft following last season, with no loss more pronounced than that of wide receiver Amari Cooper, the fourth player taken following his junior season. Bama also lost the other two starters at wide receiver. Although Alabama has good players at the wide receiver positions, they are mostly untested. Rob Foster, Ardarius Stewart and Chris Black have shown up well in limited experience and two newcomers – fifth-year transfer Richard Mullaney from Oregon State and freshman Calvin Ridley – have been impressive in preseason work.
5, How talented is Alabama’s front seven?
McNair: Alabama’s front seven has been judged by some to be the nation’s best. All three line starters – led by preseason All-America A’Shawn Robinson – return and two of the four linebackers – including preseason All-America Reggie Ragland – are back. Bama has not only quality in these positions but very good depth featuring experienced players.
6, Who have emerged as the standout players on defense?
McNair: Two men expected to be new starters on defense have earned particular praise in preseason camp. Dillon Lee is an outside linebacker with the size (6-4, 242) to move inside in certain situations. At cornerback, which has been an area of concern, redshirt freshman Marlon Humphrey, the son of former Tide tailback Bobby Humphrey, is a world class track performer who has been one of the stars in the secondary at cornerback.
7, Preseason polls don’t mean a heck of a lot, but what’s your take on the Crimson Tide being ranked No.3 to start the season?
McNair: When a team has won three of the last six national championships and been in contention for two others until late in the season, and which has stacked top recruiting classes on one another, and which has Nick Saban as head coach, it would be a surprise if Alabama was not among the top teams in preseason polls. The problem for Bama is that the Crimson Tide is a schedule that includes nine teams ranked in the nation’s top 27.
8, What areas of Wisconsin do you expect will give Alabama trouble?
McNair: An obvious problem for Alabama in facing Wisconsin is that the Badgers have a new coach, and the Crimson Tide has to have been somewhat in guesswork mode in preparing for the opening game. Bama also has to deal with an experienced quarterback. And even though Wisconsin lost one of the nation’s top running backs, the Badgers’ running game looks to be very strong.9, What is the one thing Alabama needs to do well in order to win Saturday?
McNair: Last year’s Alabama defense was uncharacteristically poor on third down plays. The emphasis in preparation this year seems to be on the defense getting those third down stops.
10, What’s your unbiased prediction for the game?
McNair: This will be my 47th year covering Alabama football, from the last half of the Paul Bryant years through the first eight of the Nick Saban era. If I have learned nothing else, it is always to expect Alabama to win – and to almost always be right. This has the look of a relatively low-scoring game. Saban is undefeated in season-openers, including the 41-14 win to start the season against Michigan in Arlington en route to the 2012 national championship. It won’t be that easy this time, but I see something like Alabama 27, Wisconsin 13.