Just outside the North entrance to Alabama's Bryant-Denny Stadium is the "Walk of Champions." That's where you'll soon find a bronzed likeness of Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban.
Saban is primed to become a Tide immortal; he led Alabama to a national title last season, the school's first since 1992. That's why his statue will be erected next to those of other Alabama title-winning coaches: Bear Bryant, Frank Thomas, Wallace Wade and Gene Stallings.
Last season's crown may have been the sweetest of them all for this storied program, as it officially stamped Alabama as the hottest program in the nation. Saban already makes that eight-year, $32 million contract he signed in 2007 appear to be a bargain and has moved the program light years from his 7-6 debut in 2007 that included a home loss to Louisiana-Monroe.
USC was the best program in the first half of the last decade; the final half of the 2000s belonged to Florida. With a new decade dawning, Alabama appears primed to be latest dynasty after going 26-2 the past two seasons.
Last fall was one of the best in Tuscaloosa, as the Crimson Tide capped a 14-0 season with a victory over Texas in the BCS title game. The only close calls were a 12-10 victory at Tennessee that required two last-second blocked field goals by massive nose tackle Terrence Cody and a 26-21 Iron Bowl triumph at Auburn that featured a winning drive in the final minutes.
Now, the chase begins to repeat as national champs. Alabama should get a boost from an impressive recruiting class that saw 11 members enroll early and take part in spring practice. The Crimson Tide's offense should be the best yet under Saban, but there is plenty of work to do on defense.
THE SCHEME: Alabama runs a conventional offense that typically works out of a two-back set. But coordinator Jim McElwain mixes formations to keep defenses off-balance. As long as Saban is the coach, expect the Tide to be a run-oriented offense that will look to pass off play-action. The offensive staff returns intact, with McElwain's reputation growing as one of the nation's hottest assistants. He will be a head coach soon.
STAR POWER: No doubt, it's junior RB Mark Ingram, who became the first Alabama player to win the Heisman last season. And he was big in big games, plowing over Florida in the SEC title game for 113 rushing yards and three touchdowns. He then was offensive MVP of the BCS title game with a 116-yard rushing effort that included two scores. Junior WR Julio Jones is another who provides star power. Jones, though, never will have mega-stats because of Alabama's offensive tendencies.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: It's time for redshirt freshman T D.J. Fluker to shine. The massive Fluker (6 feet 6/340 pounds) is slated to start at right tackle after arriving on campus in 2009 amid great hype as the No. 3 overall prospect in the nation.
STRONGEST AREA: This may be the best collection of running backs in the nation. The group is led by Ingram, a physical back with a burst. After rushing for a modest 728 yards as a freshman in 2008, Ingram seemingly came out of nowhere as a sophomore to rush for 1,658 yards and 17 touchdowns. Ingram also is a good receiver, ranking second on the team in 2009 with 32 receptions and three scoring grabs. But he may lose carries to talented Trent Richardson, another physical back who gained 751 yards as a true freshman backup last season.
THE SCHEME: Saban likes the versatility of the 3-4 scheme. From that alignment, Alabama can disguise its fronts and attack from myriad angles. It's also easy for the defense to slip additional players into the box to help stuff the run. Coordinator Kirby Smart has become one of the top assistants in the nation. Smart was wooed by Georgia -- his alma mater -- and Tennessee in the offseason, but he stayed and saw his salary bumped to $750,000; he also has no buyout clause in his contract if he is offered a head-coaching job. If he opts for a lateral move, there is a buyout. The only staff change saw linebacker coach James Willis leave to become defensive coordinator at Texas Tech. Saban promoted Jeremy Pruitt from an administrative post to replace Willis.
STAR POWER: The staff was counting on junior E Marcell Dareus becoming a pass-rushing force. But his future is up in the air after reports that Dareus might have received extra benefits from an agent. If he can't play, Alabama's star defender figures to be LB Dont'a Hightower. He was on track for a big year before suffering a knee injury in late September that ended his season. Hightower will man Rolando McClain's old spot in the middle and move outside in pass situations.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: True freshman CB DeMarcus Milliner figures to play a role this fall, as he already is on the two-deep after arriving in time to take part in spring drills. Milliner was a five-star prospect and the No. 2 cornerback in the nation and must produce right away for a secondary that was ravaged by departures.
STRONGEST AREA: It will be difficult to replace McClain, who won the Butkus Award as the nation's top college linebacker and was like a coach on the field. But if anyone can do it, it's Hightower. Jerrell Harris, Chris Jordan, Courtney Upshaw and Nico Johnson are the other guys to watch in a linebacking corps that has lots of interchangeable parts. Harris showed great promise as a true freshman in 2008 before being suspended for six games last season for accepting an impermissible benefit and not being up front about it with investigators. Technically, the Tide have no returning starters at linebacker, but this is one of the best unit groups in the nation.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Alabama lost six key defensive backs off last season's roster. The lone full-time starter returning is SS Mark Barron, who led the SEC with seven interceptions and needs to provide leadership to a unit with a lot of questions. Robert Lester figures to start at free safety, while Dre Kirkpatrick and B.J. Scott are primed to claim the cornerback spots. But they all will be pressed by a bevy of talented newcomers. True freshmen DeMarcus Milliner and John Fulton should see time at cornerback. JC transfer DeQuan Menzie, who took part in spring drills, and LSU transfer Phelon Jones also are expected to have immediate impacts. Depth at safety is a huge concern, as both backups could be true freshmen.
There are many questions here. The hunt is on for a kicker with Leigh Tiffin gone. He was 30-of-35 on field-goal attempts last season, leading the nation in both categories. True freshman Cade Foster has a good chance to win the job; he arrived early and kicked in spring drills. Alabama also will break in a new punter, with P.J. Fitzgerald and his 41.5-yard average gone. There were no scholarship punters on hand in the spring. The job could go to true freshman Jay Williams. Finally, the search is on for a new return man. It will be difficult to replace Javier Arenas; for his career, he averaged 24.1 yards on kickoff returns and 14.2 yards on punt returns, and his seven punt returns for touchdowns set an SEC career record. The Tide's coverage units were weak last season -- especially the kickoff coverage -- and you can bet Saban wants to change that.
This is a mixed bag. Alabama gets a stern test in the second game with a visit from Penn State; the storied programs haven't met since 1990, when the Nittany Lions took a 9-0 decision in Tuscaloosa. There also are four dangerous SEC road games: Arkansas, South Carolina, Tennessee and LSU. And October kicks off with a bang, as Florida visits Tuscaloosa in what could be a preview of the SEC title game. The Gators last visited Tuscaloosa in 2005, losing 31-3 in a game mostly remembered for the gruesome leg injury suffered by Tide WR Tyrone Prothro.
There are questions on defense, but many of the projected new starters saw significant action in 2009. Still, the potential loss of Dareus would be a blow. He paced Alabama with 6.5 sacks last season in a reserve role and was the defensive MVP of the BCS title game. But Saban continues to bring talent into Tuscaloosa and may be able to cover for Dareus' loss -- if it comes to that. The Tide had the No. 5 recruiting haul in 2010 after signing the nation's No. 1 classes in 2008 and '09. Alabama won it all last season with a power running game and dominating defense. The Tide may have to lean on the offense early while the defense develops chemistry and cohesion. It's conceivable the offense will lean a bit more on the pass with a veteran quarterback in Greg McElroy and bevy of good receivers. Bottom line: Don't expect Alabama to go away anytime soon.