By Andy Staples
April 17, 2010

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The Alabama first-team defense, the best unit on teams that went 26-2 the past two seasons, never enjoyed a post-spring steak dinner. When Crimson Tide players gathered to close the book on spring practice the past three years, the defenders always ate from the plates of beans reserved for the losers of the annual A-Day Game.

That will change Monday. Alabama's defense, which will replace nine starters from a unit that led the Crimson Tide to the national title, will eat steak. The offense, which returns a Heisman Trophy-winning tailback (Mark Ingram) and his potentially more talented backup (Trent Richardson), an all-world receiver (Julio Jones), a steady quarterback (Greg McElroy) and three starting linemen (James Carpenter, William Vlachos, Barrett Jones), will dine in Camp Van Camp's.

The image of 6-foot-4, 306-pound defensive lineman Marcell Dareus gnawing on a sirloin should haunt the dreams of anyone with designs on the SEC or national titles. Because if Alabama's defense -- in spite of all that it lost -- can beat its offense, then the Crimson Tide can beat anyone.

OK, so A-Day might have ended in controversy Saturday. With the teams tied at the end of regulation, enough time to run one play mysteriously appeared on the clock. That's when backup quarterback A.J. McCarron threw a perfect fade to Brandon Gibson for a 39-yard touchdown to give the White (second-team offense and first-team defense) a 23-17 win against the Crimson (first-team offense and second-team defense.)

"We were just going to keep playing," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "There wasn't going to be overtime. It was going to be sudden-death. ... Somebody was going to eat steak, and somebody was going to eat beans on Monday. Other than that, it didn't matter. But as the commissioner, I have to represent the winning club. Therefore, I have to eat steak."

No one in Tuscaloosa will begrudge Saban his choice of protein. Alabama, after all, will erect a bronze statue of the coach this summer that will stand sentry alongside WallaceWade, FrankThomas, BearBryant and GeneStallings outside the soon-to-be expanded Bryant-Denny Stadium (new capacity: 101,000). The statue will arrive about the same time as the preseason polls, the top of which cleared up considerably for this particular Associated Press poll voter on Saturday.

Almost immediately after I hit the send button on my way-too-early top 25 for 2010 in January, I felt a pang of regret. I ranked Alabama No. 1, mostly because of the offensive firepower the Crimson Tide would return. It nagged me that the Tide had to replace nine defensive starters as well as their kicker, punter and long snapper.

So I made sure to include Alabama on my spring football tour -- I've visited Alabama, Auburn, Cincinnati, Florida, Louisville, Mississippi State, Rice, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, UCLA and USC -- to see with my own eyes whether Alabama truly deserved the top spot in all the preseason polls.

I'll end the suspense right now. Barring some off-field catastrophe, I'll rank Alabama No. 1 in my post-spring top 25 and in my preseason top 25. The Crimson Tide have the potential to be every bit as good as they were last year.

One of last year's coaches' poll voters disagrees. "If I was voting, I wouldn't vote it," Saban said. "I would think there's somebody that has more players coming back that had a successful team last year that is going to be able to compete that way."

Saban has to say that. He doesn't want his team overwhelmed by expectations. But those expectations are justified. We know what the offense can do. The defense - the real question mark - certainly passes the eyeball test, and it should be noted that while these players didn't start, most played major roles last season. Take Dareus, for example. He was a second-teamer, but he made the two biggest plays in the BCS title game against Texas. First, he delivered the hit that knocked Texas quarterback Colt McCoy out of the game. Later, Dareus intercepted a Garrett Gilbert shovel pass and returned it 28 yards for a touchdown.

Linebacker Rolando McClain is gone. Say hello to Dont'a Hightower, a former starter who missed most of last season because of a knee injury. Cornerback Kareem Jackson is gone. Say hello to Dre Kirkpatrick, the nation's top secondary prospect in the class of 2009. Nose tackle TerrenceCody is gone. Say hello to 310-pound JoshChapman -- if Chapman doesn't get beat out by Kerry Murphy.

"They're in the same situation this year that we were in last year as an offense," McElroy said. "It's not because they haven't been talented enough or they haven't been ready to play. They were just younger than the great players in front of them. They were just waiting for their opportunity."

Here's an opportunity. Third-and-one on the first series for Alabama's first-team offense. All 91,312 in the stadium knew exactly who would get the ball. Ingram, Mr. Heisman himself, took the handoff and darted right. He ran smack into Dareus and safety RobertLester, who buried him for a 1-yard loss. On the Crimson team's next possession, linebacker CourtneyUpshaw stuffed Ingram on the goal line and forced a field goal.

"We still have a long way to go, but as a defense we're really jelling together," Dareus said. How well the defense comes together will depend mightily on what Tide defenders do between now and August. "That's when it counts," Dareus said. "You've got to work hard with no one looking."

McElroy believes his defensive teammates will build on this spring's progress. "Everyone on the defensive side of the ball is hungry," McElroy said. "I can see it in their eyes."

On Monday, the hungry Crimson Tide defense will eat steak. McElroy and his offense will eat beans. "I'll eat beans with a smile on my face," McElroy said. "We get our rings on the same day, so at least I'll have something to look forward to."

If those carnivorous defenders keep up their progress, McElroy might add more rings to his collection this time next year.

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