Finally, it’s time for kickoff. And the debates about whether Alabama can win a national championship and whether Auburn can stay out of last place in the SEC West can intensify – if that’s possible.
Both schools enter the 2009 college football season with some intriguing questions and I am here to provide the answers as No. 5 Alabama prepares to take on No. 7 Virginia Tech Saturday night at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, while Auburn plays host to Louisiana Tech.
Let’s begin this top-five question and answer session with …
1. How will Greg McElroy perform at QB?
McElroy, a junior, replaces John Parker Wilson, a three-year starter. He has played in only eight games in his college career, but has completed 16-of-20 passes (80 percent) for 196 yards and two touchdowns in a reserve role the past two seasons. And he did star in his one season as a starter for national high school power Southlake Carroll High School in Texas after taking over for Chase Daniel, the 2004 National High School Player of the Year who went on to star at Missouri. McElroy’s numbers were an eye-popping: 4,687 yards passing with 56 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. I don’t think the Crimson Tide will miss Wilson at all. McElroy is going to be sensational.
2. How long before the revamped offensive line jells?
Tackle Andre Smith (Cincinnati Bengals) and center Antoine Caldwell (Houston Texans) have taken their acts to the NFL, although Smith, the No. 6 overall pick, is sidelined with a broken foot after a long contract holdout. Senior left guard Mike Johnson and senior right tackle Drew Davis are back, but it will take some time for the line to play as a unit. Expect Virginia Tech to exploit some of the Tide’s weaknesses on the offensive front, after two exhibition games against Florida International and North Texas (OK, they are regular season games, but they just amount to paid wins for the Tide), the line should be together for the SEC opener against Arkansas on Sept. 26.
3. Who will be the Tide’s other go-to receiver?
The Tide needs somebody to step up, so defensive backs don’t gang up on sophomore sensation Julio Jones, Mike McCoy and Marquis Maze have great speed, but can they make the tough catch in a clutch situation? Perhaps, the Tide will have to rely more on 6-foot-6 senior tight end Colin Peek in the passing game.
4. Will the defense allow more than two touchdowns in any game?
There’s talk that this Tide team will rival the 1992 group that completely shut down opponents and paved the way for the Tide’s last national championship. Junior Rolando McClain and sophomore Dont'a Hightower could be two of the best linebackers to ever play at Alabama before they are finished. Senior nose guard Terrence Cody and senior cornerback Javier Arenas (also a dangerous punt returner) are as good at their positions as anyone in the nation. In other words, the Tide’s defense will have to take the field in the shadows of their end zone a few times a game for anybody to cross the goal line more than twice in any game. And even if opponents do take over in the red zone, they will have to settle for field goals more often than not.
5. Will Coach Nick Saban have back-to-back 10-win seasons?
Saban is the only current Football Bowl Subdivision coach to coach for at least 10 years and not suffer a losing season, but he has never had consecutive 10-win seasons. After guiding LSU to the national championship with a 13-1 record in 2003, the following season the Tigers finished 9-3. Last year, in his second season at Alabama, Saban led the Tide to a 12-2 record (the two losses coming in the Tide’s final two games against Florida in the SEC Championship Game and against Utah in the Sugar Bowl). After beating Virginia Tech – I predict 20-10 – to open the season, the Tide will roll through the regular season 11-1 (the only blemish coming Oct. 10 at Ole Miss), giving Saban back-to-back 10-win seasons. Also look for the Tide to win the SEC West, but lose to Florida (again) in the SEC Championship Game.
1. Will Gene Chizik prove he’s the right man for the job?
Chizik distinguished himself as Auburn’s defensive coordinator from 2002-04, including the Tigers’ 13-0 season, but he was a surprising choice to replace Tommy Tuberville, considering he was 5-19 in two seasons as head coach at Iowa State. He had a 10-game losing streak when Auburn handed him the head coaching reins on the Plains. The expectations are low at Auburn this year, so Chizik might get a pass on this season. But if the Tigers get blown out regularly by the top SEC teams on their schedule, then one of those ridiculous firecoach(fill in the blank).com websites might show up on the Internet.
2. Can the Tigers rediscover the pass?
New offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn was brought in to restore some balance – i.e., a passing game – to the Tigers’ offense. The Tigers finished 10th in the SEC in passing yards per game (165.4 yards) in 2008 and had the fewest touchdown passes (7) in the league. Senior Chris Todd won the quarterback battle over Kodi Burns in preseason camp, but he has a largely untested receiving corps to work with, especially with senior Montez Billings suspended for the first four games for academic reasons. So the Tigers will have to rely heavily on the run again. At least that should make running backs Ben Tate, Eric Smith and Onterio McCalebb happy.
3. How will Kodi Burns adjust to wide receiver?
Burns was the Tigers’ starting quarterback for most of last season, but after losing out to Todd for the job in preseason camp, he was switched to wide receiver. Chances are Burns will see more time in the backfield in the “wildcat formation,” running the ball out of the shotgun than he will catching passes.
4. Will Antonio Coleman wish he had jumped to the NFL?
Coleman, a defensive end, passed up a chance to go the NFL to return to Auburn for his senior season. A wise move the scouts said. Another season in college will help him develop physically and improve his overall game, thereby improving his stock. He might have been a late-round choice in the 2009 draft, but could go in the first three rounds with a solid senior season. Plus, Coleman has 14.5 career sacks and needs one more to move into the top 10 in Auburn history.
5. Will Auburn win enough games to qualify for a bowl game?
After finishing 5-7 last year, leading to Tuberville’s departure, the Tigers open this season with four consecutive home games – against Louisiana Tech, Mississippi State, West Virginia and Ball State. If they can sweep those, then yes the Tigers will go bowling. But if they split those, then Auburn will be hard-pressed to win four more games on its schedule, especially on the road at Tennessee, Arkansas, LSU and Georgia and even at home against Ole Miss and Alabama. Figure another 5-7 finish.