Its the end of July, and the Alabama football program faces a familiar scenario.
The dawn of another season begins at SEC football media days, where the hype machine, again, hits another gear.
Preseason rankings again say the Crimson Tide is among the top teams in the nation, and a Heisman Trophy campaign is a few practice weeks away from getting serious. The physical shadow of tailback Mark Ingram departed in January, so its Trent Richardsons show now.
This is the reality in Tuscaloosa these days.
Now, can it live up to the lofty projections?
The autumn results didnt live up to the summer expectations for Alabama last season. Winning streaks snapped, and egos bruised, the Tide never found its identity in 2010.
Reason for optimism came on the first day of 2011, when the defense snapped back into championship form by pounding Michigan State 49-7.
A few burning questions will face Alabama in Hoover, Ala., on Friday. Here are the top five:
1. Whats with the quarterback situation?
Alabama coach Nick Saban left a cliffhanger after spring practice.
Sophomore AJ McCarron and redshirt freshman Phillip Sims could make the argument for winning the starting job because neither separated from the other.
Perhaps a winner wasnt what Saban wanted -- at least not in April. Using both isnt out of the question, Saban said a few times this summer. A year ago, he said he likes the continuity of using one quarterback with leadership skills, but circumstances were different then.
Have things changed over the summer? Did one step up and win a greater share of his teammates respect during offseason conditioning?
We likely wont get an answer in Hoover.
The competition makes both quarterbacks better. Resolving it in a hotel ballroom in July doesnt fit the master plan thats sure to include more battling through the end of August.
2. What about the fourth quarter?
Performing in the clutch fueled the 2009 national championship run in Tuscaloosa.
That didnt carry over last fall. Besides the late comeback at Arkansas, the Tide couldnt find the mojo in the final moments of crucial games. There was the failed fake field goal at South Carolina, a sack/fumble at LSU and, well, the entire second half of the Iron Bowl.
The intangibles of experience and leadership were lost in those big moments that separated Alabama from another Bowl Championship Series run and the Capital One Bowl.
Is that different this year?
There are a few more seniors on the depth chart, but the quarterback position will belong to a sophomore or a redshirt freshman (or both). The five years of Greg McElroys experience is now awaiting the end of the NFL lockout.
3. Is this defense that good?
The talk of the summer sounds like it did two years ago concerning the defense. Is it as good as or better than the 1992 high-water mark?
Linebacker Donta Hightower and Mark Barron certainly will hear that question a few times Friday. A healthy load of starters/former star recruits has the discussion back on the table. Such was the case in 2009, when the defense pushed the pile all the way to the Rose Bowl.
That defense didnt lose a No. 3 overall draft pick such as Marcell Dareus before living up to the hype. The 2009 defense also didnt have the same stable of linebackers as this one. Hightower, a healthy Courtney Upshaw, C.J. Mosley and Nico Johnson could make the debate reasonable.
The secondary has the most to prove. Breakdowns were glaring in the three 2010 loses, but logic says they became learning opportunities.
4. Can coaching changes make a difference?
The coaching structure didnt change much before last season. Jeremy Pruitt moved from an administrative job to coach the secondary that Saban oversees.
Not so this year.
Three new assistants shook things up this spring with different and often more vocal styles than the past. Jeff Stoutland (offensive line) rivaled Chris Rumph (defensive line) for the most animated newcomer at spring practice. The two replaced the more reserved Joe Pendry and Bo Davis, respectively. Players appeared to respond to the new approach.
Wide receivers coach Mike Groh came with a more familiar face because he was a graduate assistant at Alabama in 2009.
The questions also will surround the coordinators.
Kirby Smart (defense) and Jim McElwain (offense) are potential head coaches. A big year could send both to the next level and create two major coaching searches by years end.
5. Whats the mental state of the team?
Perhaps no Alabama team in memory dealt with more off-field tragedy/turmoil since the last game.
The deadly tornadoes of April 27 injured long snapper Carson Tinker and killed his girlfriend, Ashley Harrison. Offensive lineman Aaron Douglas died of an accidental drug overdose at a Florida party weeks later.
So how much of a toll is the heartbreak on the team?
Reminders of the EF-4 tornado assault the senses in Tuscaloosa, and scars will remain through this fall and a few to come.
Just how or whether that impacts football this season is impossible to answer before ball meets toe Sept. 3 against Kent State in Bryant-Denny Stadium.