TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The time for talk is over. Game week at the University of Alabama has arrived after more than six months of waiting, speculating and pontificating to the point of exhaustion. There wasn't enough air in the room for it to last any longer.
Conjecture and analysis will finally begin to give way to actual evidence and statistics. Practice and scrimmages will surrender to the real thing.
Six days is all that separates the Crimson Tide from the first bout of their title defense. The No. 8 Michigan Wolverines await in Arlington, Texas, for what could be the most hyped season opener Alabama has been a part of since before most college-age students were born.
But the hype, to this point, has been absent in the coaching rhetoric. Nick Saban has mentioned the game in passing. Brady Hoke, too. It's hard to talk match-ups when you don't know who half your starters are on defense, as is the case with Alabama, or which players will return from suspension, as is the case with Michigan.
Starting today, that ends.
Starting today, the game becomes real and those questions become answers.
Starting today, college football, for all intents and purposes, is back.
With that in mind, let's take a look at the top five story lines of the offseason in Tuscaloosa:
1. Are we looking at 2010 all over again? From the minute Alabama beat LSU for the national championship and lost eight players to the NFL draft, it's been the overarching theme of the offseason: Can the Crimson Tide stay hungry? Can they overcome a dramatic loss of experience and play beyond their years? Is a title defense possible, or will they let the opportunity slip through their grasp? So far, the answer to that question has been a resounding "No" from players and coaches. The complacency that plagued the 2010 team hasn't been present in Tuscaloosa. Leaders such as Damion Square, Nico Johnson and Robert Lester have kept the defense in line, while AJ McCarron has developed into a leader of the offense.
2. Keeping up the standard on defense: The question isn't whether the defense can be as good as last year's, and frankly it's an unfair comparison to make in the first place. Not when the 2011 defense finished No. 1 in all four major defensive categories. And not when the defense lost seven starters to the NFL. But, as defensive coordinator Kirby Smart put it, "They’re still being held to the same Alabama defensive standard, not the 2011 defensive standard." With experience at every level of the defense -- Jesse Williams on the line, Johnson and C.J. Mosley at linebacker, Lester at safety -- all is not lost from a year ago.
3. A new coordinator. A new offense? Doug Nussmeier's hire, coupled with the emergence of McCarron at quarterback has people asking: Is Alabama's offense in for a change? Maybe so, but not the dramatic shift some might expect. As Nussmeier put it, it's all about "meshing the systems" of what was and what he hopes to bring. He'll bring new wrinkles to the offense, but not a complete overhaul. The balance might change out of necessity, though. Alabama's offense has been built around Heisman Trophy caliber running backs the past four seasons. Now that those players are gone, the onus falls on the arm of McCarron.
4. Who are the playmakers on offense? McCarron has the arm to lead the offense in a new, more pass-friendly direction, and it appears he has the talent at receiver to complete the equation as well. Kevin Norwood had a big offseason and has the look of a No. 1 target. Behind him are a number of options: Kenny Bell, DeAndrew White, Christion Jones, Amari Cooper, Marvin Shinn and Cyrus Jones. Cooper, a true freshman, has earned the praise of the coaching staff and could play a role in Week 1 so long as a lingering toe injury doesn't get any worse.
5. Running back rotation: Eddie Lacy waited his turn, and now it has arrived. The junior running back from Louisiana earned a reputation as a powerful, big play threat as a backup to Richardson. Now, he'll get to hold the reins himself. But he won't be the only one carrying the ball for the Crimson Tide. Replacing the production of Richardson will be a team effort. Jalston Fowler, Dee Hart and T.J. Yeldon all figure into the rotation. Fowler proved last season that he can make plays with his feet. Yeldon did the same during his first appearance in crimson at A-Day when he wowed the crowd with a 180-yard performance. Hart, a change-of-paced back, could be a curveball to opposing defenses.