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Against Penn State, we'll find out if Alabama still deserves the hype

Like all teams, the Alabama Crimson Tide have questions, but not enough to have prevented AP and coaches' poll voters from anointing them the team to beat in 2010. They're the defending champs until proven otherwise, and the consensus No. 1 team in the land.

If all that's true -- if Nick Saban's team is indeed locked and loaded for another title run -- then the Tide should pound No. 18 Penn State on Saturday night at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

It's not that the Nittany Lions are patsies. On the contrary, Joe Paterno's team is fresh off consecutive 11-win seasons, the last of which included a Capital One Bowl victory over Alabama's SEC West counterpart, LSU. It's more that if the Tide are who we think they are, they should feast on a team starting a true freshman quarterback (Rob Bolden) playing his first career road game. That's what No. 1 teams do.

But the truth is, none of us -- not even Saban -- really knows whether this year's Crimson Tide deserve the hype. Saturday, we should find out.

"It's these kinds of games that define who you are," Saban said Wednesday, and the Tide's recent history bears that out.

Going into its 2008 opener against then ninth-ranked Clemson, Alabama was an under-the-radar team coming off a 7-6 season in Saban's first year. In manhandling the Tigers 34-10, the Tide made it clear they'd be a factor in the SEC that season -- and they were, winning their first 12 games before falling to Florida.

A year ago, 'Bama entered its opener against No. 7 Virginia Tech as a top five team, but one with questions at quarterback (with Greg McElroy starting for the first time) and on the offensive line (which had lost two All-Americas). Some 498 yards later, those questions were answered, and the Tide began their march to a BCS championship.

Saban's 2010 team may be his most talented yet, but it's got its own questions, none of which were answered with any certainty in last week's 48-3 rout of San Jose State (2-10 a year ago). Penn State is different. Behind the young but talented Bolden, two-time 1,000-yard rusher Evan Royster and a corps of physical and experienced receivers, the Nittany Lions will pose the first significant test for Alabama's eight new defensive starters. (The unit will again be playing without star pass-rusher Marcell Dareus, the defensive MVP of last January's BCS championship win over Texas, who is currently serving a two-game suspension for accepting improper benefits.)

In anointing the Tide the preseason No. 1, pollsters were operating under the assumption that 'Bama wouldn't suffer much of a drop-off on that side of the ball despite losing stars like Rolando McClain, Terrence Cody and Javier Arenas. That's likely due both to the number of stars recruiting services assigned to their replacements as well as to Saban's track record of reloading. The defense has a couple of veteran leaders in senior safety Mark Barron and junior linebacker Dont'a Hightower (who returned after missing most of last season with a torn ACL), but the leading tackler in the opener was a true freshman, linebacker C.J. Mosley.

The Tide held San Jose State to 175 total yards, but Saban, ever the perfectionist, wasn't entirely pleased with his inexperienced secondary.

"We had some guys that played pretty well, and we had some guys that need to play better," he said. "We made too many mental errors in some cases."

If 'Bama is truly the No. 1 team in the country, its defense will blow up Penn State's oft-maligned offensive line and suffocate Bolden. Defensive end Luther Davis and nose guard Josh Chapman, upperclassmen who spent the past two seasons as understudies, should be in the backfield constantly.

Alabama's loaded offense has far fewer concerns -- though, as you may have heard, the Tide will be likely be playing without the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Mark Ingram, who had knee surgery last week. His replacement, sophomore Trent Richardson, is no slouch himself, and redshirt freshman Eddie Lacy ran for a team-high 111 yards on 13 carries against San Jose State.

McElroy, a fifth-year senior, and receivers Julio Jones, Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks, round out an exceptional group of skill players, but they'll be facing a Penn State defense that ranked ninth in the country last season.

"When you play a team that is very sound and very fundamental, it makes you earn the yards," said McElroy. "So it's a little more enjoyable. It makes things a little more fun."

And then there's the element that always gets overlooked, yet is vitally important to a championship run: Alabama's new kicker (Cade Foster) and punter (Cody Mandell) are both true freshmen. Think they might feel some nerves?

Still, given the choice, most coaches would rather rely on a freshman kicker than a freshman quarterback. Penn State's Bolden, a 6-foot-4, 208-pound specimen, drew raves throughout fall camp and jumped over two older candidates to become the first true freshman ever to start an opener in Paterno's 44-year reign. He looked sharp in his debut against Youngstown State, going 20-of-29 for 239 yards. "You would never know he was a freshman, that's for sure," said Saban.

That's all well and good, but if a true freshman quarterback finds success against Alabama's defense while playing under the lights in front of 102,000 hostile fans, then we might have to redefine our expectations for the Tide in 2010. Even Paterno admitted, "I feel like we're outmanned in this one."

It was around this same time last season that then-defending national champ and preseason No. 1 Florida played its first big game of the year against a perceived-to-be-overmatched Tennessee team. Fans expected a bloodbath, particularly in light of Vols coach Lane Kiffin's inflammatory remarks toward Urban Meyer. Instead, the Gators grinded their way to a 23-13 win, eliciting a mini-panic that Meyer tried to diffuse by blaming the "nonsense" leading up to the game.

As it turned out, that game served as a harbinger for a season in which Florida struggled to find its offensive identity and, despite finishing 13-1, was ultimately viewed as a disappointment for finishing second in its own conference.

The hype surrounding this Alabama team is nowhere near that which enveloped the Tim Tebow-led Gators, but for the time being the Tide will still be held to a higher standard than any other team in the country. If Alabama wins, but does so in less-than-dominant fashion, microscopes will come out. Fans of other national title aspirants will gain a dose of confidence.

Or, the Crimson Tide will go out and back up their ranking with another one of their early-season smackdowns. So far, those have been pretty good indicators of future success.

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