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January 20, 2010

The bullseye gets bigger

TUSCALOOSA _ In a very strange way, University of Alabama running back Mark Ingram saw this coming.

Maybe not quite as clearly as a vision or through any sort of premonition, but when the Class of 2008 first arrived on the Capstone this was exactly what they talked about.

"We said we were going to win a national championship our second year," the Heisman Trophy winner said. "It's kind of crazy that we actually did it.

"But I remember after just seeing the seniors, like (Coach Nick Saban) said, buy into the program there, they had a 7-6 year before and we went 12-0, and kind of the turning point was when we lost to Florida and we lost to Utah. We weren't committed all the way, we were taking teams for granted and we didn't have the will not to be denied. We kind of took all his philosophies into perception, and this is where we are now. We had an undefeated season and we're going to continue to try to have success."

Try? The overwhelming consensus is that Alabama is already considered the team to beat in 2010,in part leading Sports Illustrated to the high-profile headline, "Dynasty: Can Anyone Stop Alabama?"

According to Sportsbook.com, Alabama over Ohio State is the super-early odds-on pick for next season's BCS National Championship Game, with the Buckeyes listed just ahead of Oregon and Boise State, with Nebraska, TCU, Virginia Tech and Texas all tied behind them.

By that standard, the pre-preseason predicted order of finish atop the Southeastern Conference divisions is:

East: Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee

West: Alabama, LSU, Arkansas, Ole Miss, Auburn

For the most part, the wave of optimism regarding next fall is due to four reasons, even though the Crimson Tide's defense must replace at least eight starters:

1. Replacements appear ready to step up, especially for the few offensive departures.

2. Alabama (arguably) had the nation's top recruiting class the past two years and is poised for a second-place finish next month, which has created some impressive depth across the board.

3. Experience. The Tide hasn't lost a regular-season game in two years, is fresh off winning the national title and Saban has now done it twice. When he recently said "This is the beginning," even his harshest critics didn't doubt him.

4. No team appears poised to knock Alabama off the top of the hill.

The big three quarterbacks of Sam Bradford, Colt McCoy and Tim Tebow (two of whom Alabama had to beat en route to its 13th national title) are all headed to the National Football League, and many other traditional powers like Southern California, Notre Dame, Michigan, Tennessee and Florida are at best in flux.

Consequently, many of the teams that finished near the top of the 2009 rankings figure to start at roughly the same place next season. It also means that the non-BCS schools may never have a better opportunity to play for the BCS title, especially Boise State.

The Broncos lose just five seniors and return 21 of 22 starters. Although Jeff Sagarin rated their 2009 schedule 96th in terms of difficulty, next season Boise State will play Virginia Tech in Washington, D.C., host Oregon State and visit Wyoming.

Meanwhile, Alabama will host Penn State and Florida in addition to its usual tough lineup, and also play six opponents coming off bye weeks.

"For all the players that we're losing on defense we had a team this year that really probably won because we ran the ball effectively and we played pretty well on defense for the most part, and we're going to lose a lot of players on defense," Saban said. "We have some good young players, and it'll be a great opportunity for them. But every team is different, and every team has issues and problems that you have to resolve in terms of the development of the players that you have and your ability to recruit and replace the right people and develop the right chemistry.

"Now, we do have a lot of good players returning on offense. Hopefully we can build on that and improve. But we're going to have a new kicker, we're going to have a new punter, we're going to have a new specialist, we're going to have a lot of new things."

Here's a sampling of the early, early picks for the preseason top five, although many of the following opinions were expressed before some of the recent coaching shakeups.

Rivals: 1. Alabama; 2. Ohio State; 3. Oregon; 4. Boise State; 5. Southern California.
Quote: "The Tide will return numerous key offensive players off this season's title team, but coaches will need to replace seven defensive starters. Will there be a drop-off? And can the Tide make it two in a row?"

Mark Schlabach, ESPN: 1. Alabama; 2. Ohio State; 3. Boise State; 4. Oregon; 5. Texas.
Quote: "The schedule gets a little more difficult, with home games against Penn State on Sept. 11 and Florida on Oct. 2. With the way Coach Nick Saban has recruited the past few years, though, the Crimson Tide should be in position to win their second consecutive BCS national championship."

Andy Staples, SI.com: 1. Alabama; 2. Boise State; 3. Ohio State; 4. Texas; 5. Iowa.
Quote: "It's no coincidence that after linebacker Rolando McClain announced his decision to skip his senior year and enter the draft, rising junior Donta' Hightower was brought before the media. That baton pass should go smoothly, and if you watched the BCS title game, you already know rising junior Marcell Dareus can take over a game.

Jon Wilner, San Jose Mercury News: 1. Alabama; 2. Ohio State; 3. Boise State; 4. Oregon; 5. Miami.
Quote: "Combine what should be a powerhouse offense (quarterback Greg McElroy, Heisman Trophy-winning tailback Mark Ingram and uber-talented receiver Julio Jones) with several dynamite Saban recruiting classes, and the Tide should start the season on top.

College Football Live, ESPN: Kirk Herbstreit gave his top five as 1. Alabama; 2. Ohio State; 3. Oklahoma; 4. Iowa; 5. Virginia Tech. On the same show, Robert Smith had 1. Alabama; 2. Oregon; 3. Ohio State; 4. Boise State; and 5. Nebraska.

Regardless, a lot has to happen between now and next January for the Tide to have a chance at successfully defending the crystal football, with Saban already deflecting talk that Alabama is the clear frontrunner.

"I think that people who make those statements sort of just look at the periphery of, well, you have Julio Jones, you have Mark Ingram, you've got Trent Richardson, the quarterback is coming back, so therefore everything is going to turn up roses," Saban said. "That's not necessarily the case, because you've got to build a team. We play 50 or 60 guys through the course of the season, and like I always say, the bottom 40 guys on your roster usually determine how good that team really is."


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