Looking at my crystal ball
Justin Schuver, Sports Editor
It's always difficult to try and predict the outcome of a college football season. There are simply too many variables that can totally change a team's momentum at a moment's notice – player injuries, missed calls by officials, coaches caught paying a visit to gentleman's clubs…
Yet that won't stop me from trying. Here's my best ballpark estimate at how the two in-state SEC schools will do, as well as what I see happening for my alma mater Notre Dame.
Alabama Crimson Tide (projected finish: 8-4): Losses to Arkansas, Florida State, Tennessee and LSU.
It's the start of the Saint Nick era at Alabama, and expectations will be high for the new coach.
Right now, the Tide's biggest problem is a young defense that is woefully thin at several key spots. Sophomore Prince Hall is an excellent linebacker, but he's the only returning starter. Some of the other projected starters include a former defensive lineman in Ezekial Knight and senior Keith Saunders, who had 16 tackles last year as a defensive lineman. The lack of depth could be even more pronounced this season, after new defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has implemented a 3-4 defensive system – a scheme that relies heavily on a strong linebacking corps.
In the SEC, you have to have a strong defense to win, and right now Alabama needs several young players to step up in a big way if it hopes to compete for a conference title in Saban's first season.
Alabama's biggest strength could be its passing game, which returns nearly completely intact. The Tide's 1-2 receiver punch of D.J. Hall and Keith Brown is strong and quarterback John Parker Wilson had a nice season last year. Former Hartselle Tiger Nikita Stover came on strong at the end of last season and should be in the mix as one of Wilson's targets as well. With a running back corps that has talent but lacks in size and experience, there will be a heavy burden placed on Alabama's passing game.
I think 8-4 would be a good season for Saban, and any Alabama fans expecting substantially more than that should be ready for disappointment. Although with the way the Iron Bowl has gone lately, beating Auburn at the end of the season might be enough for Saban to win the hearts of the Tide faithful.
Auburn Tigers (projected finish: 9-3): Losses to Florida, LSU and Alabama.
Auburn is an interesting case study. Has there been a more unlucky team the past several seasons? In 2004, the Tigers were undefeated but missed out on the BCS Championship Game. Last year, Auburn was the only team in the country to beat eventual champion Florida. In the last three seasons, Auburn has won a total of 33 games – more than any other team not named USC.
If Auburn goes undefeated this season, there should be absolutely no debate over whether the Tigers should make the BCS Championship. The Tigers' home slate isn't too overwhelming (rival Alabama is arguably the only 'toss-up' game) but the road schedule is absolutely brutal. It will be nearly impossible for Auburn to be unscathed after trips to Gainesville, Fayetteville, Baton Rouge and Athens.
The biggest strength the Tigers have could be in the secondary. Even after losing David Irons, Auburn still returns its three other starters to one of the best passing defense units in the conference. Auburn should be able to force most teams into running the ball, although the SEC certainly has the backs who can punish the Tigers' smallish front seven.
If Auburn is going to meet its potential this season, it will have to get more consistent play from quarterback Brandon Cox. Now a senior, he needs to have a breakout season to help keep the pressure off talented running backs Brad Lester, Ben Tate and Carl Stewart.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish (projected finish: 8-4): Losses to Georgia Tech, Michigan, UCLA and USC.
I have seen prognostications that put the Irish as low as 6-6, and I have seen others as optimistic as 10-2. I'm going to go somewhere in the middle. One of the biggest problems for Notre Dame is, like Auburn, its brutal schedule. The last four are all but guaranteed wins, but the first eight are all games the Irish could easily lose.
A lot is being made of the offense losing quarterback Brady Quinn and 1-2 receivers Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight, but I believe this team's biggest strength could surprisingly be its defense. First-year defensive coordinator Corwin Brown has implemented a 3-4 system that should help the defense be more aggressive, unlike last year's unit under Rick Minter that was passive at times and allowed quarterbacks to pick it apart.
I would be happy with a solid second-tier bowl game win, breaking that annoying bowl losing streak and setting up another possible BCS run in 2008 or 2009.