There was a silver lining for Alabama in last year's Iron Bowl collapse, when Auburn stormed back from a 24--0 deficit to win 28--27. During the Crimson Tide's first-half surge, linebacker Courtney Upshaw forced a fumble and sacked Cam Newton three times. The 6'2", 265-pound "Jack" linebacker—a hybrid position that sometimes puts him at defensive end—Upshaw had been hampered by a high-right-ankle sprain early in the season, but he became a force as the year wore on. In Alabama's 49--7 Capital One Bowl rout of Michigan State, he had two sacks and a forced fumble. "Courtney developed a lot of confidence throughout the year last year, and that carried over to the spring," says Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban. "That confidence has helped him become a playmaker."
Confidence building was a recurring theme for 'Bama's defense in 2010, with Upshaw—now a senior—one of 10 players in his first season as a full-time starter. But despite losing three SEC games, the Alabama D ranked third nationally in points allowed (13.5 per game) and fifth in yards (286.4). With nine starters back, this year's defense could rival that of Saban's mighty 2009 national-championship squad.
The big questions are on offense, where two quarterbacks—third-year sophomore A.J. McCarron and redshirt freshman Phillip Sims—are competing to replace starter Greg McElroy. Whoever wins the job will be without receiver Julio Jones (picked No. 6 in April's NFL draft) and 2009 Heisman-winning running back Mark Ingram (No. 28). But veteran wideouts Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks have 2,039 career receiving yards between them; Ingram's replacement, junior Trent Richardson, is a powerful runner who has rushed for 1,451 yards during his first two seasons; and the O-line has four of five starters back.
There's more to this team than experience and talent: The Tide wants revenge. Coming off their 2009 BCS title, "We felt like we were entitled to win," says center William Vlachos, who adds that the Iron Bowl "put a little chip back on our shoulder." Every little bit helps—and a linebacker like Upshaw storming into opposing backfields won't hurt, either.
3 Kent State
10 at Penn State
17 North Texas
1 at Florida
15 at Ole Miss
12 at Mississippi State
19 Georgia Southern
26 at Auburn
The 5'11", 224-pound speedster rushed for 144 yards and one TD against Penn State in one of two starts in 2010.
A freshman starter on Alabama's '09 national title team, the 6'5", 311-pound Jones may move from guard to LT.
Left-knee injury cost him most of '09; now the 6'4" 260-pounder anchors the D.
Coach Nick Saban (5th year)
2010 Record 10--3 (5--3 in SEC)
Final AP Rank 10
Returning Starters 16
Offense 7, Defense 9
PHELAN M. EBENHACK/REUTERS (UPSHAW)
The resurgent Upshaw overcame an early-season ankle injury to lead the 'Bama D with 14½ tackles for loss and seven sacks.
TOM DIPACE (MAZE)
At 5'10", Maze isn't the biggest wideout in Tuscaloosa, but he is among the fastest and should provide a viable deep threat for an offense in transition.
BOB ROSATO (HIGHTOWER)