TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Ask coaches around college football and they'll tell you how underrated Alabama's offense has been. One SEC defensive coordinator told me this summer that AJ McCarron still doesn't get enough credit for what he's accomplished as a passer. He said the word "steady" comes to mind when he looks at the tape, but that it shouldn't fool you into thinking the Tide's offense lacks punch: McCarron and Co. were consistently successful at getting the better of defenses in 2012.
While Nick Saban's defense has gotten the bulk of credit in the past -- and rightly so, considering it has finished in the top five nationally in points allowed every year since 2008 -- it shouldn't go unnoticed what he's quietly constructed on the other side of the ball thanks to back-to-back No. 1 recruiting classes and a change in philosophy. He's claimed all along that he was willing to throw more and that he wanted more big plays, but for the longest time his offense has been characterized as conservative, leaning on the defense and running game while asking its quarterbacks to simply manage the proceedings.
But when Saban hired Doug Nussmeier as offensive coordinator following the 2011 season, everything changed.
Having arguably the best offensive line in the country and a stable NFL-caliber tailbacks gave the Tide balance -- the difference in rushing and passing yards a razor thin 2.1 percent compared to, say, Oregon which had a differential of 17.3 percent. That opened things up for the passing game, as McCarron finished No. 1 nationally in passing efficiency and fell 67 yards shy of becoming the school's first 3,000-yard passer. There's no telling how many more yards he would have thrown for had Alabama not jumped out to so many big leads, pulling ahead by two touchdowns or more by halftime in 10 games.
With a fresh slate, a veteran quarterback and the deepest group of receivers in recent memory, Alabama's offense has a chance to do even more in 2013. It could, much to the chagrin of opposing coaches, become one of the most explosive attacks in the country.
"Very, very excited for Year 2," Nussmeier said on Sunday. "We've got a long way to go, but I'm really impressed by the job that [strength coach Scott Cochran] and his guys have done in the weight room preparing these guys coming into camp. The focus, the improvements that we've made over the summer are there. Really looking forward to progressing each day as we look forward to playing a very, very good Virginia Tech game in the opener."
Nussmeier kept to the cliches in what will be his only time speaking with the media this season, stressing the need to maintain balance and stick to the program's core philosophies. But it's difficult to imagine him not giving into his roots as a record-setting college quarterback given what he'll have to work with this season. McCarron is a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender under center and an already talented receiving corps welcomes back former starters DeAndrew White and Kenny Bell after missing time last season with injuries. Former top-25 prospect Chris Black has shed his redshirt and is eager to prove himself, as are true freshmen Raheem Falkins and Robert Foster.
"The receiver group has progressed very, very well from where we were at this point last year," Nussmeier explained. "We have a couple of new players, a lot of returning guys, a lot of guys who've played a lot of games."
The headliner of the group, Amari Cooper, set nearly every rookie receiving record Alabama had in 2012, passing Julio Jones on his way to double-digit touchdowns and 1,000 yards. And like the former SEC Freshman of the Year and first-round draft pick, Cooper should only improve with age. As Nussmeier pointed out, Cooper took time to develop into a go-to target last season, starting his first career game in Week 6.
"Towards the end of the season, he was playing as good as anybody in the country at that position," Nussmeier said. "He continues to develop, and I can talk about the little intricacies, he's still learning. He's really starting to focus on the little things that are going to take his game to the next level."
Christion Jones agreed with his coordinator, calling Cooper an impact player since the first time he set foot on the field in Tuscaloosa.
Jones was one of two receivers to start 10 games last season, frustrating defenses with his ability to run after the catch, averaging 13.6 yards every time he touched the ball. Despite that, he said he and Cooper are fighting for reps.
"At Alabama, everything we do is competitive," he said. "You have to bring your 'A' game to practice, not just the game."
Bell is one such player pushing for a return to the starting lineup. His 25.4 yards per catch in 2012 was the best in the country among receivers with at least 15 receptions. Now that his broken leg is healed, he's the type of home run threat McCarron can turn to when a big play is needed.
But it's not just Bell who will keep defensive coordinator's up at night. The speedy senior agreed: the offense's potential is sky high.
"Especially since we have the people we have," he said. "We have a great quarterback, a great running back, great receiver, a great offensive line. I think we can be one of the most stellar offenses in the country."