The Orlando Sentinel has ranked all 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country. The Sentinel staff will take a closer look at a new team daily, counting backward from No. 120 to our projected No. 1 team. We will not be including the four teams the NCAA lists as still reclassifying to the Football Bowl Subdivision level.
Today at No. 4: Alabama
Coach: Nick Saban (50-12, sixth season; 146-54-1 overall)
2011 record: 12-1 (8-1 in Southeastern Conference, second in SEC West)
Look back: Alabama opened the season with eight straight wins setting up what some billed as the “Game of the Century” against SEC West rival LSU on Nov. 5. It was a match-up of the No. 1 Tigers and No. 2 Tide and LSU won the defensive battle, 9-6 in overtime. Alabama finished the season with four straight wins and earned a rematch with LSU in the BCS National Championship in New Orleans on Jan. 9. This time around, Alabama put together one of its best defensive efforts and shut down the Tigers, 21-0 to win the school’s 14th national championship. It was the second title in the past three years for the Tide.
Offensive starters lost/returning: 5-6
Defensive starters lost/returning: 6-5
Top returnees: QB AJ McCarron, C Barrett Jones, DE Damion Square, LB Nico Johnson, TE Michael Williams
Strengths: Offensive coordinator Jim McElwain departed for the head coaching job at Colorado State in the offseason and Nick Saban hired former Washington coordinator Doug Nussmeier to run the offense. Quarterback AJ McCarron will start his second season as the Tide’s starting quarterback. The junior will look to surpass his accomplishments of last season when he completed 67 percent of his passes for 2,634 yards and 16 touchdowns and was named the offensive MVP of the 2012 BCS National Championship Game. … Heisman Trophy finalist Trent Richardson bolted for the NFL leaving his backup Eddie Lacy as the main weapon in the backfield this season. Lacy rushed for 674 yards and seven touchdowns last season but spent most of the spring on the sidelines with an injury. Joining the junior in the backfield will be junior Jalston Fowler and freshmen Dee Hart and T.J. Yeldon. … The offensive line returns four starters from a group that helped Alabama become the top rushing team in the SEC last season. All-American Barrett Jones will anchor the group again.
Weaknesses: Alabama had the best defense in the country last season but took a major hit in the offseason losing several key components including its top three tacklers in LB Dont’a Hightower, S Mark Barron and DT Courtney Upshaw. That’s 205 total tackles and 14.5 sacks of production that the coaching staff will need to replace. The defensive line will need to count on seniors Damion Square and Jesse Williams to make big plays up front. Senior linebacker Nico Johnson will step into the role as the vocal leader in the middle of the field. Safety Robert Lester is the only returning starter in the secondary.
Outlook: Normally, when a team loses as much talent as Alabama has, you would figure a rebuilding year would be order. However, this is Alabama and Nick Saban and his staff always find a way of restocking the roster. AJ McCarron took a huge step forward with his play in the BCS Championship Game and if he continues his maturity, the quarterback position is in good hands. The line is solid as is the talent level at running back. The defense maybe inexperienced but it’s loaded with plenty of young talent. Expect the Tide to be competing for another SEC and BCS title this season.
Sept. 1 vs. Michigan
Sept. 8 Western Kentucky
Sept. 15 at Arkansas
Sept. 22 Florida Atlantic
Sept. 29 Ole Miss
Oct. 13 at Missouri
Oct. 20 at Tennessee