|Linebacker Courtney Upshaw :: US PRESSWIRE|
A year removed from winning the BCS Championship, Alabama ended last season with a 10-3 record that was considered a disappointment. The Crimson Tide began the year ranked No. 1, only to finish fourth in the SEC West, losing to South Carolina, LSU and, after a stunning second-half collapse, archrival Auburn. And yet the statistics suggest Nick Saban's team was still one of the strongest in the country, particularly on defense, where it finished third nationally in points allowed (13.5) and fifth in yards allowed (286.4). "In the three games we lost, we gave up 35, 28 and 24 points," says Saban. "Our lack of maturity and knowledge contributed to last year's defense making the mental errors that led to a big play that let the other team back in the game."Having endured those growing pains, Alabama's 2011 defense is now brimming with experience. The returning starters include four All-SEC honorees: safeties Mark Barron and Robert Lester, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and linebacker Dont'a Hightower. In addition, linebacker Courtney Upshaw emerged as a dominant pass rusher late last season and had two sacks and a forced fumble in the Tide's 49-7 demolition of Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl. "That  team tried to create an identity for itself in the bowl game," says Saban. "I see some of that same sense of purpose a little bit more in this team."For Alabama's returning players that purpose is obvious: to wipe away the bitter memory of watching their cross-state nemesis win the SEC and BCS championships after the Tigers erased a 24-point deficit to win 28-27 in Tuscaloosa. "We're a very selfish team. We've got a lot of pride," says running back Trent Richardson. "To even watch the SEC championship game, it had me sick."The Tide will lean heavily on the dynamic Richardson, a potential Heisman candidate, and a veteran offensive line while breaking in a new starting quarterback, either third-year sophomore A.J. McCarron or redshirt freshman Phillip Sims. Come SEC play, the revenge tour begins. "We're trying to get the wins back," says Upshaw, especially eyeing games with LSU and Auburn. "We've got to get them."
Can the experienced defense maintain its high level of play and avoid the lapses that led to last season's defeats?
6.0 -- Percentage of passes thrown against the Crimson Tide in 2010 that were picked off, the highest in the FBS.
Mark Barron, SS, Sr. -- A football writers' All-America honoree, the third-year starter passed on the NFL after a torn pectoral muscle sidelined him for the Capital One Bowl. He had three interceptions and a team-high 75 tackles last fall.Dont'a Hightower, LB, Jr. -- Last year the 2009 Freshman All-America hadn't fully recovered from knee surgery that cost him most of the '09 season, yet he still made 69 tackles. Now playing at 100 percent, he'll anchor the Tide defense.Courtney Upshaw, LB, Jr. -- An explosive playmaker when he is healthy, the 6-2, 265-pound hybrid pass rusher was a starter for the first time last season, and he proved a menace down the stretch, with 15 tackles, five sacks and three forced fumbles against Auburn and Michigan State.Trent Richardson, RB, Jr. -- In the past two seasons as Mark Ingram's backup, Richardson rushed for 1,451 yards, had another 392 receiving yards and returned 25 kickoffs. Oh, and he can bench press 475 pounds. Barrett Jones, RG, Jr. -- A freshman starter on Alabama's '09 national championship team and a two-time Academic All-America, the 6-5, 311-pound Jones is so dependable that coaches have toyed with using him to fill the Tide's vacated starting spot at left tackle.
DeQuan Menzie, CB, Sr. -- A decorated juco transfer when he came to the Tide, the Columbus, Ga., native was relegated to nickel duty in 2010 while learning the defense and recovering from hamstring and Achilles tendon injuries. Nick Saban was effusive over Menzie's play this spring, calling him the team's best cornerback in one scrimmage. The coaches will find ways to get him on the field often.
Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Fr. -- The nation's top-rated tackle pledged to Auburn in a nationally televised Signing Day announcement, but after several days of drama the Hyattsville, Md., native sent his letter of intent to Tuscaloosa, where he joins brother Arie, a redshirt freshman LT.This team preview originally appeared in Sports Illustrated Presents' SEC Preview.