NCAA Football Preview - Alabama Crimson Tide

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Updated: 8/23/2013 12:45 pm

The Crimson Tide's season began in the national spotlight, defeating No. 8 Michigan at Cowboy Stadium on Sept. 1, 41-14. From there, they earned the nation's No. 1 ranking and won eight straight games to start the year.

They experienced a hiccup against Texas A&M and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel on Nov. 10, losing at home, 29-24, but it was still able to clinch the SEC West crown following a Nov. 24 triumph over Auburn (49-0). They took on No. 3 Georgia in the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 1 in the Georgia Dome and came away with a 32-28 victory.

The Tide finished the regular season ranked No. 2 in the BCS poll behind Notre Dame, but made easy work of the Fighting Irish in the title tilt, 42-14. Head coach Nick Saban improved to 68-13 in six seasons with the program and added a fourth National Championship to his resume' after winning one at LSU in 2003.

2013 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: The 2012 version of the Crimson Tide offense was a well-oiled machine, not only in terms of production (38.7 ppg, 445.5 ypg) but efficiency, as it scored on 90 percent of its red zone drives (74 percent being touchdowns), and there's no reason to believe that the unit's output will slow down this fall.

A.J. McCarron is well on his way to becoming the most decorated quarterback in school history. He led the nation last season with a 173.08 passer efficiency rating, completing 67.2 percent of his throws for 2,933 yards with a school- record 30 touchdowns against only three interceptions. He also went an incredible 291 pass attempts without throwing an interception, the second- longest streak in SEC history.

McCarron, who is already the only quarterback in history to win back-to-back BCS titles, is eager to make it a three-peat.

"I want to win one more," McCarron said. "I don't want to just go out every Saturday and play. We expect to be the best team out there and expect to play like it too. Our leaders are going to step up and lead us in the right way."

McCarron will benefit from the return of his top receiving threat Amani Cooper, who was named a Freshman All-American after grabbing 59 receptions for 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. Kevin Norwood (29 rec, 461 yards, four TDs) and Christon Jones (27 rec, 368 yards, four TDs) round out a talented and experienced receiving corps.

The loss of Eddie Lacy (1,322 yards, 17 TDs) in the backfield is sure to hamper the running game a little, T.J. Yeldon proved to be just as dynamic a weapon in his freshman season, rushing for 1,108 yards (6.3 ypc) and 12 touchdowns. While Yeldon will more than likely assume the lead-back role, expect Kenyan Drake (281 yards, five TDs) to earn more touches as a sophomore.

A staple of these recently dominant Alabama teams has been an outstanding offensive line, and even with Chance Warmack, D.J. Fluker and Barrett Jones all moving on to the NFL, a line anchored by Cyrus Kouandjio and Anthony Steen is still expected to be great.

DEFENSE: Once again, the Alabama defense was historically strong a season ago, ranking first in the FBS in scoring defense (10.9 ppg) and total defense (250.0 ypg) while forcing 29 turnovers. As with any great team, the Tide lost a few key pieces in the offseason, including Dee Milliner, Nico Johnson, and Jesse Williams, but the talent well hasn't run dry in Tuscaloosa.

After earning consensus First Team All-America honors in 2012, C.J. Mosley (107 tackles, eight TFL, four sacks, two interceptions) is a front-runner for the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker as well as a likely first- round pick in next year's NFL draft.

The Tide seem to never have a lack of playmakers at linebacker, and this season is no different, with Trey Depriest (59 tackles), Adrian Hubbard (11 TFL, seven sacks, three FF) and Xzavier Dickson (33 tackles, 3.5 sacks) all returning to one of the strongest linebacking corps in the country.

The linebackers get most of the attention in a 3-4 defense, but unheralded down linemen like Ed Stinson (8.5 TFL, three sacks) are invaluable pieces to the front seven.

In the secondary, Deion Belue (two picks, nine passes defended) will take over as the top corner in the absence of Milliner. Safety HaHa Clinton-Dix has shown game-changing ability with five interceptions a year ago.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Cade Foster takes over as the primary placekicker. He was just 4-of-9 on field goal attempts as a junior, but all of his attempts were from 40-plus yards, while the graduated Jeremy Shelley (11-of-11) took care of short field goals and PATs. Cody Mandell has established himself as one of the top punters in the nation, averaging 44.3 yards a boot last year with 19 pinned inside the 20-yard line.

Christon and Cyrus Jones shared return duties a season ago with each averaging more than 25 yards per kickoff return. Christon recorded a 99-yarder for a touchdown against Ole Miss.

OUTLOOK: Without question, Alabama will have a target on its back this season with all 13 other SEC teams shooting to take it down, but the team has proven in recent years that it is unlikely to succumb to the pressure of being No. 1.

Playing in the SEC is always tough, but Alabama's path to repeat is lining up nicely in its favor schedule-wise, with only two of its games coming against teams ranked in the preseason Top-25 (Texas A&M on Sept. 14, LSU on Nov. 9), while it avoids the likes of Georgia, Florida and South Carolina.

Even with sky-high expectations, Saban has been here before and knows that looking too far down the road could prove costly.

"It seems almost a little bit crazy to try and predict what's going to happen in the season," Saban said. "In the last 21 seasons, (the media) have only picked the right team four times to win the SEC."

The Tide's lighter strength-of-schedule could cost them in the BCS poll if they slip up against LSU or Texas A&M, but considering the recent dominance of this dynasty, don't expect for that to happen as they likely roll to another SEC championship and shot at the BCS title.

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