Preseason Countdown — No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide
Published: Friday, June 25, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, June 24, 2010 at 2:14 p.m.
Gatorsports counts down our Top 25 Preseason teams heading into the 2010 college football season.
NO. 1 ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE
2009 record: 14-0 overall; 9-0 in the Southeastern Conference; Beat Texas 37-21 in the BCS National Championship Game.
Returning starters: 9 offense; 3 defense.
Strengths: Running game and defense. Junior running back Mark Ingram gained almost 2,000 yards from the line of scrimmage and scored 20 touchdowns in winning the Heisman Trophy last season and should stay adequately refreshed by sharing the stage with sophomore Trent Richardson, who debuted as a true freshman last season with 751 punishing yards on the ground and eight touchdowns. Both backs crashed through the 100-yard barrier against Texas in the national championship game, and will be further complemented this season by redshirt freshman Eddie Lacy, a 6-foot, 212-pounder out of the same Ingram-Richardson mold. A ball-control mindset offensively will likely help Alabama break in a young defense bit by bit during the early portion of the season. The exodus from the Crimson Tide's 2009 defense — which produced a plus-19 turnover margin — was seismic enough before linebacker Rolando McClain, the Butkus Award winner, and cornerback Kareem Jackson left as juniors and landed in the first round of the NFL draft. But the cupboard is far from bare, as Dont'a Hightower, a McClain clone, is back from knee surgery and ready to man the middle, and three straight top-five recruiting classes have yielded a secondary full of blue-chip athletes, led by All-SEC safety Mark Barron, sophomore cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and LSU transfer Phelon Jones, who has starting experience in the SEC and owns title rings from both Baton Rouge and Tuscaloosa. Junior defensive end Marcell Dareus, the defensive MVP vs. Texas, is a potential top 10 NFL pick and anchors the defensive line, which is expected to rotate up to 10 fresh bodies along the front.
Weakness: Passing game. Alabama returns an undefeated quarterback in senior Greg McElroy and perhaps the most-intriguing wide receiver prospect the NFL will scout this season in junior Julio Jones, but continues its search for a replacement for tight end Colin Peek and adequate No. 2 and No. 3 receivers to take some of the attention away from Jones, who enters his third season with 101 career catches for 1,520 yards and eight TDs. Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks have exhibited flashes of potential, but haven't flooded opposing secondaries well enough to put the 6-foot-4, 211-pound Jones in many desired mismatch situations.
Biggest star: Mark Ingram. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner ran for 1,658 yards and 17 touchdowns against the nation's toughest schedule last season, and added 32 receptions (second on the team) for 334 yards and three additional TDs. Ingram is less than 1,300 yards shy of Shaun Alexander's school record for career rushing.
Rising star: D.J. Fluker, a 6-foot-6, 340-pound redshirt freshman, is getting a strong look at the starting right tackle spot and will provide a space-clearing presence whenever he does break into the starting rotation.
Toughest game: Florida, Oct. 2. Newly expanded Bryant-Denny Stadium, now 101,000 capacity, will debut with San Jose State and Penn State in September, but a visit by the Gators will be the early season showdown with the most purpose. Picked by most to win their respective SEC divisions, Alabama and Florida — after splitting the last two SEC Championship games — may be on a collision course for two meetings this season with a December rematch in Atlanta a very real possibility.