We have now entered the “Oh my God college football is never going to get here” part of the offseason, and now seems as good a time as any to take an in-depth look at the Alabama football for 2012.
This isn’t a ranking of which opponents are better, but which games will be the most challenging to Nick Saban and company as they embark on the quest for a second consecutive National Championship (We swear we won’t break this one).
12 Nov. 17: Western Carolina Catamounts (Tuscaloosa, AL)
An obligatory affair pits the Crimson Tide against its lone FCS opponent of the season a week before their matchup with Auburn in the Iron Bowl. Last season Alabama played against FCS power Georgia Southern, and struggled to a 45-21 victory over their triple-option attack. Georgia Southern ultimately lost to North Dakota State in the FCS Semifinals.
This time around, Alabama is going up against lowly FCS opponent Western Carolina. The Catamounts went just 1-10 last season, with their lone win coming against Mars Hill. They are generally picked to finish last in the Southern Conference and have just an 11-56 record since 2006.
The only suspense in this game will be whether or not you want to pay $7 for a hot dog at the concession stand.
11 Sept 22: Florida Atlantic Owls (Tuscaloosa, AL)
This also doesn’t figure to be much of a contest. Florida Atlantic is coming off of a 1-11 season with their only win against UAB late in the season. Legendary coach Howard Schnellenberger stepped down following the season, and new head coach Carl Pelini has made big changes on both sides of the ball.
The Owls will be implementing a no-huddle spread attack on offense, and switching to the 3-4 defensively. The spread attack has to help an offense that ranked dead last in 2011 at just 248 yards per game, and averaged under 13 points per contest.
It would be a genuine surprise if this game wasn’t over at halftime.
10 Sept 8: Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (Tuscaloosa, AL)
The Hilltoppers were snubbed at bowl selection time a year ago after compiling a 7-5 record and a 2nd place finish in the Sun Belt. The loss of their record-setting running back Bobby Rainey is big, but Western Kentucky does return 16 starters from a seven-win team.
The last time these two schools met was in 2008, and the Crimson Tide won 41-7. Expect a similar outcome this time around, as the Tide get a bit of a break in between games against Michigan and Arkansas.
9 Sept 29: Ole Miss Rebels (Tuscaloosa, AL)
The Rebels were the laughingstock of the SEC last season, finishing with a 2-10 overall record and an 0-8 mark in league play. Alabama, like many, had little trouble dispatching Ole Miss. Alabama handily defeated the Rebels 52-7 in Oxford; a game which produced one of the great highlights of the season: a remarkable 76-yard touchdown run by Trent Richardson.
Their dismal season led to Houston Nutt getting the axe, and the hiring of Hugh Freeze, who led Arkansas State to a 10-2 record last season but still has only one year of experience as a head coach at the FBS level.
Ole Miss’ offense was abysmal in 2011, ranking 114th in the nation in total offense. They still have question marks at the QB position, whether it is Barry Brunetti or Bo Wallace who takes the snaps at quarterback for them this season.
Freeze is off to a good start on the recruiting trail, but it’s going to take time for Ole Miss to be competitive in the SEC again. Alabama shouldn’t have much trouble against Colonel Reb this year.
8 October 27: Mississippi State Bulldogs (Tuscaloosa, AL)
A 7-6 record was not what Mississippi State envisioned last season. The Bulldogs were destined for mediocrity when Chris Relf was stopped short of the goal line in the final seconds of a 41-34 loss to Auburn.
Alabama rebounded from their 9-6 loss to LSU with a 24-7 victory over Mississippi State in Starkville. Tyler Russell officially takes over at quarterback for Dan Mullen this season after making spot starts over the last two seasons. The loss of Vick Ballard at RB is a big loss, but junior LaDarius Perkins should fill in nicely as the full-time running back. Chad Bumphis has play-making ability at wide-receiver.
The Mississippi State defense returns seven starters, and should hold up well against SEC opponents. The biggest lift for the Bulldogs is an extremely easy first half of their schedule. Their first seven games are against Jackson State, Auburn, at Troy, South Alabama, at Kentucky, Tennessee, and Middle Tennessee State. It’s not inconceivable the Bulldogs come to Tuscaloosa with a 7-0 record. That’s pretty unlikely, but anything less than 5-2 or even 6-1 would be a huge disappointment.
The Bulldogs should be more competitive this season, but still aren’t good enough to beat the big boys, and Dan Mullen has yet to beat an SEC West team not named Ole Miss. It’s pretty far-fetched for even the most diehard of Mississippi State fans to think they can upset Alabama in Bryant-Denny.
7 Nov 10: Texas A&M Aggies (Tuscaloosa, AL)
An unfamiliar foe for the Crimson Tide; Alabama has not met Texas A&M on the gridiron since 1988, a 30-10 Tide victory in College Station. Alabama is 3-1 against Texas A&M, and this will be the first meeting between the two in Tuscaloosa.
The Aggies entered last season with very high expectations, but blew several second-half leads as they faltered to just a 7-6 overall record. That was enough to end Mike Sherman’s tenure as head coach at Texas A&M, who moves forward with new head coach Kevin Sumlin from Houston.
Texas A&M’s offense put on a show last season, averaging 39 points per game and ranking 7th in the nation in total offense. The loss of 8th overall pick Ryan Tannehill leaves a void at the QB position, but Jameill Showers has the luxury of playing behind an offensive line that returns all five starters from last season. He also has Christine Michael to which he can hand the ball off. Michael rushed for 899 yards and averaged 6.0 yards per carry last season; with increased carries it is pretty easy to see Michael eclipsing the 1,000 yard mark in 2012.
Offensively, Texas A&M can stack up with the rest of the SEC, but defensively they still have a long way to go. They were shredded through the air last season, giving up over 276 yards per game, good for 109th in the nation, and they have to replace all four starters in the secondary.
Texas A&M should ultimately do well in the SEC, but it would be a huge upset if they were to come in to Bryant-Denny Stadium and leave victorious.
6 Oct 20: Tennessee Volunteers (Knoxville, TN)
Nick Saban is a perfect 5-0 against Tennessee since arriving in Tuscaloosa, and aside from the heart-stopping 2009 game, the matchups haven’t been very close. It was more of the same last season as Alabama cruised to a 37-6 victory over the Volunteers, thanks to a big second half from quarterback AJ McCarron.
Injuries hurt what some thought to be a potential breakout season for Tennessee in 2011, as they sputtered to a 5-7 record that included their first loss to Kentucky since 1984.
All jokes about Dooley and Tennessee aside, the Vols have the potential to be explosive offensively this season. Led by future NFL QB Tyler Bray, the Vols should boast one of the top aerial attacks in the SEC. Of course it helps to have potentially the two best wide receivers in the conference, Da’Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter, to bolster the attack.
In contrast, the Tennessee running game has a lot of question marks. As a team, the Vols averaged just 2.8 yards per carry last season, their worst output since 1964. With 20 returning starters it is easy to see why there is optimism in Knoxville.
It could be now or never for Derek Dooley at Tennessee, and I believe Tennessee to be a real sleeper team in the Eastern Division.
Alabama should be too much for Tennessee to handle this season, but the margin of victory could be a bit closer than recent seasons.
5 Nov 24: Auburn Tigers (Tuscaloosa, AL)
Regardless of records or talent-level, you can never take the Iron Bowl lightly. It’s the best rivalry in all of college football, and you never know what is going to happen when the two teams take the field. Alabama has won three of the last four meetings against Auburn, including a dominating 42-14 performance at Jordan-Hare Stadium last season.
After an 8-5 season in 2011, Auburn had a bit of a coaching overhaul. Gone is offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn; in is Scott Loeffler from Temple. Gone is defensive coordinator Ted Roof; in is former Falcons assistant Brian VanGorder.
With Loeffler replacing Malzahn at offensive coordinator, expect big changes for the Tigers on offense as they move back toward a pro-style attack from the spread. The problem will be whether or not Auburn has the personnel to execute a pro-style system with a spread quarterback in Kiehl Frazier, and an undersized speedy running back in Onterio McCalebb.
Kiehl Frazier was a highly touted recruit, but didn’t live up to expectations when he was given the chance to play last season, but he seems to be a better option than Clint Moseley.
Defensively, Auburn should see improvement after finishing 81st overall in total defense last season. Their defensive line in particular has a lot of potential, led by an All-American caliber defensive end in Corey Lemonier. Daren Bates is their one returning starter at linebacker, but the Tigers front seven should see improvement this season after giving up over 189 yards per game on the ground a year ago.
All in all, this Auburn team should be a bit better than they were last season, but I don’t see a big turnaround. Another 8-5 season is likely, and if that is the case then Alabama should be heavy favorites when the Tigers travel to Bryant-Denny Stadium.
4 Oct 13: Missouri Tigers (Columbia, MO)
I won’t go as far as to say Missouri is the 4th best team the Crimson Tide will face in 2012, but the unfamiliarity factor plays a key role in this game, and their 604-mile trip will be the longest trek of the season for the Tide. Alabama hasn’t played against Missouri since 1978, and their 2012 matchup in Columbia will be just the fourth meeting between the two schools. Missouri actually holds a 2-1 record against Alabama, with the Crimson Tide winning the last meeting.
The Tigers are coming off an 8-5 season, capped off by beating North Carolina in the Independence Bowl. The Missouri offense was one of the best in college football last season, averaging 33 points per game and 475 yards per game. Obviously, those numbers will be tough to replicate against an SEC schedule, but the Tigers have a strong offensive line that should be able to hold up against fierce SEC front-sevens.
Missouri’s ground game paced their offense last season, ranking 9th in the nation at 244 yards per game. The loss of star tailback Henry Josey to a freak knee injury for more than likely the whole season is a big blow, but dual-threat quarterback James Franklin provides the biggest test for the Tide defense.
After seeing Denard Robinson in the season opener, Alabama should be better prepared for Franklin by the time this game rolls around, but Franklin, unlike Robinson, can do it as well with as his arm as he can with his legs. He threw for nearly 3,000 yards in 2011 and ran for 981 more.
The addition of No. 1 overall recruit Dorial Green-Beckham – a mammoth wide receiver – is a big addition to the Tigers offense. At 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, Beckham will be a matchup nightmare for the Crimson Tide by the time the teams square off in the middle of October.
Alabama should be able to handle Missouri even on the road, but this is not a game they can take lightly. Fortunately, Alabama does have an extra week of preparation before their trip to Columbia.
3 Sept 15: Arkansas Razorbacks (Fayetteville, AR)
Before Bobby Petrino dipped his pen in company ink, wrecked his motorcycle, and was subsequently fired by Arkansas, you could have easily talked me into Alabama’s September 15th matchup with the Hogs as being the team’s toughest challenge in 2012. You could have also talked me into Arkansas winning the SEC and playing for the National Championship.
Petrino’s dismissal tapered my expectations for the Razorbacks, but not by much. I generally think they will finish 3rd in the SEC West behind Alabama and LSU, but they will be able to compete with the big boys this season. Tyler Wilson is arguably the best quarterback in the SEC, and the return of Knile Davis (potentially the best running back in the SEC) from last season’s ankle injury provides a big boost to an already dangerous Arkansas offense.
The big question is whether their offensive line will be able to hold up against the ferocious Tide and Tigers defense. Alabama battered and bruised Tyler Wilson in last season’s meeting, and were dominant offensively in route to a 38-14 thumping of the Hogs. Arkansas’ offensive line wasn’t great last season, and returns only two starters this season. It’s a good thing Tyler Wilson is tough; he is sure to take a beating once again this season.
Alabama’s last trip to Fayetteville was under similar circumstances. Alabama entered as the defending National Champions and Arkansas entered with a swagger and a feeling that it was finally their time. The Hogs had Alabama on the ropes, and led most of the game, but late game mistakes by then-QB Ryan Mallett helped Alabama to a 24-20 victory.
Arkansas went 11-2 last season, but were thoroughly manhandled by the SEC heavyweights. Smart money is on Arkansas being more competitive in 2012, especially at home. The Crimson Tide will have to bring their A-game to Fayetteville to come out unscathed.
2 Sept 1: Michigan Wolverines (Arlington, TX)
Alabama’s season opener in Dallas against Michigan promises to be one of the team’s toughest tests of the regular season. Under Nick Saban, Alabama has performed very well in these neutral site season openers, defeating Clemson in 2008 and then Virginia Tech in 2009 in the Chick Fil-A Kickoff at the Georgia Dome.
In Brady Hoke’s first season at the helm in Ann Arbor, he completely revitalized a down Michigan football program that had fallen on hard times under the guidance of Rich Rodriguez. The Wolverines went 15-22 in three seasons under Rodriguez, making it to just one bowl game in 2010. In Brady Hoke’s first season, he led Michigan to an 11-2 record and a 23-20 win over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl.
Heading into 2012 the Wolverines, led by record-setting dual-threat quarterback Denard Robinson, are one of the preseason favorites to win the Big Ten. One of the biggest reasons for the revitalization of Michigan football was the defensive side of the ball. After raking 108th in scoring defense in 2010, the Wolverines ranked 6th last season, giving up just 17.4 points per game.
If Alabama is going to defeat Michigan at Jerry World, they are going to have to force Denard Robinson to rely on his arm and not his legs to move the football. Robinson is the top running quarterback in college football, but he is just an average, if not below-average quarterback when it comes to passing, and he has a propensity for turnovers. Robinson tossed 15 interceptions last season, some of which were unbelievably awful throws. Robinson arm punts have become a staple of the Michigan offense.
But that’s just one part of his game. Robinson’s ability on the ground have given defenses fits over the last two seasons, and he has compiled 2878 yards and 30 touchdowns in that span. If Alabama can neutralize Robinson’s running, then they should get off to a strong start in 2012.
1 Nov 3: LSU Tigers (Baton Rouge, LA)
Not surprisingly, Alabama’s toughest challenge in 2012 will be their trip to Baton Rouge in November in the Rematch of the Rematch of the Century. The Crimson Tide will face the hostile environment of Death Valley under the lights in a game that could easily see both teams enter undefeated.
Alabama faced the rival Bayou Bengals twice last season, kicking away the first game in Tuscaloosa in a 9-6 defeat. Alabama got the rematch it craved in January in New Orleans and put on a dominating defensive display, mauling LSU 21-0 to capture their second BCS National Championship in three years.
Most preseason magazines and polls have LSU No. 1, while others have them at No. 2 behind USC. Regardless, LSU enters the 2012 season on the shortlist of favorites to win the national title, and you know they have the game with Alabama circled on their schedule as they look to avenge their loss at the SuperDome.
LSU’s defense has the potential to be even better than last year, led by a defensive line that will be virtually impossible to stop, and a secondary anchored by Heisman finalist Tyrann Mathieu. Depth at linebacker could be an issue, but admittedly that’s just nitpicking on my part.
The biggest reason for optimism on the Bayou is the belief that Zach Mettenberger will provide stability at the quarterback position, something LSU did not have last season whether it was Jordan Jefferson or Jarrett Lee piloting the offense. With Mettenberger’s potential at quarterback and a loaded, bruising backfield, LSU will be too much for most teams to handle in 2012.
Alabama is one of a select few teams that can match up with LSU, and their showdown on November 3rd in front of a raucous Tiger Stadium crowd will be another one for the ages.
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