Last year, we spent two weeks talking with beat writers from around the SEC to get a feel for how Georgia's competition stood at the end of spring.
This year, we're doing it again with an 18-part series looking at each team in the conference along with Georgia's three non-conference FBS opponents and some big-picture analysis on the league in general, the national landscape and recruiting. We'll have two installments each day the rest of this week and next -- hence the "Two-A-Days" moniker -- and, of course, we begin with the defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide...
Alabama in a flash:
Head Coach: Nick Saban, 4th year
2009 Record: 14-0 (8-0), defeated Texas in BCS National Championship game
2009 Stats: Total offense, 403.00 ypg (4th SEC, 42nd nationally); Total defense, 244.14 ypg (1st SEC, 2nd nationally)
Coaching Changes: Jeremy Pruitt replaced James Willis as linebackers coach.
Starters Returning: Offense (8), Defense (2), Special Teams (0)
Key Player Losses: LB Rolando McClain, DT Terrance Cody, CB Javier Arenas, CB Kareem Jackson, K Leigh Tiffin
Big Games: Penn State (9/11), Florida (10/2), @ LSU (11/6), Auburn (11/26)
Non-Conference Slate: San Jose State (9/4), Penn State (9/11), @ Duke (9/18), Georgia State (11/20)
Alabama is coming off a national championship and returns the bulk of its offense. The defense, on the other hand, will require a lot of new blood, so despite being the odds-on favorite to repeat as champions of the SEC, Nick Saban and Kirby Smart are going to have their work cut out for them.
How much work did they get done this spring? For that information, I turned to Alabama beat writer Gentry Estes of the Mobile Press-Register. Here's what he had to say...
David Hale: It's not often an incumbent Heisman winner returns to an offense and might be upstaged by another player at the same position, but you did a poll of readers that asked who the first pick on 'Bama's team would be among fans. Mark Ingram finished fourth, behind fellow RB Trent Richardson (who finished second). Is that just an indication of how scary this offense -- particularly the running game -- can be in 2010? And how much progress has Richardson made since his impressive freshman campaign?
Gentry Estes: It's amazing to think that a Heisman winner returns and it is even a debate whether he's the best in his own backfield. But really, this is nothing new for those close to Alabama's team. As durable as Ingram is and as good as he is after contact, Richardson has a bit more break-away speed and is every bit as difficult to corral between the tackles. Now that Richardson is picking up pass protection schemes a lot better, so there's just not a weakness there. I'd look for the carries to be split pretty evenly this season between arguably the two best running backs in the nation.
DH: The Bama offense could be as good as ever this year, but lots of questions on defense after a number of departures last year. Perhaps the two biggest holes -- quite literally in at least one case -- left are from Terrence Cody and Rolando McClain. Who are the top candidates to step in and fill those voids?
GE: Former Hoover High teammates Josh Chapman and Kerry Murphy -- a former five-star prospect who had academic issues -- will split time in Cody's role. Both are quite capable there. As for McClain, Alabama gets Dont'a Hightower back from a season-ending knee injury to step into McClain's "Mike" position, a pivotal role since it calls signals as the QB of the defense. Though there are nine new starters on that defense, there is a lot of talent there as three consecutive top-five recruiting classes come of age.
DH: With Robby Green ruled ineligible by the NCAA and DeQuan Menzie out with an Achilles injury, what's the status of the Alabama secondary? Fair to say that's the chief concern at this point?
GE: Actually, I might call special teams in the chief concern, as Alabama must replace proven players at place-kicker and punter with untested newcomers. But the secondary is an issue as well, if only because Saban uses nickel and dime defenses more than half the time and needs a minimum of six DBs ready to play each week. As with the rest of the defense, though, there is talent to replace experience. The two newcorners -- Dre Kirkpatrick and B.J. Scott -- were both five-star recruits. Another five-star, freshman DeMarcus Milliner, is in the mix, as is LSU transfer Phelon Jones. At safety, Robert Lester is a likely candidate for the spot Green would have played.
DH: While the secondary might be a question, defensive end Marcell Dareus looked like he was ready for an All-American season this spring. Any other standouts this spring that might be ready to take a big leap forward?
GE: Dareus is a beast. I look for him to be among the best in the nation and a high draft pick in 2011. Others to watch are Kirkpatrick, Murphy, linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Jerrell Harris, tight end Mike Williams and new offensive line starters Chance Warmack (from Atlanta) and D.J. Fluker.
DH: Alabama is fresh off a national championship and is the odds-on pick to win another. That can be a heavy burden for a lot of teams to bear -- but then again, Nick Saban isn't one for making excuses. So what's been the mood of the team this spring? Are they as motivated as ever or might there be a danger of a post-national title hangover?
GE: There's always the concern that a championship team can grow complacent, and Saban is well aware of it. But the simple fact is that it's hard to see a drop-off because Alabama will have so much more talent than basically everyone it plays. The offense is loaded. The defense is better than people will think. And those special teams ... Well, if the Tide loses a game in 2011, I think it will be because of weakness at kicker and punter. There simply isn't a real weakness anywhere else.
Many thanks to Gentry for all the great information. You can read his Tide coverage HERE, check out his Bama blog HERE or follow him on Twitter HERE.
So what say you guys? Do you think Alabama should be the heavy favorite to take the SEC again or do you have concerns about all the turnover no defense?
Also, we'll be wrapping up Two-A-Days with an in-depth look at Georgia, so if you have questions you want answered, leave them in the comments section here or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
NEXT UP: South Carolina this afternoon.