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May 14, 2011

Roundtable: Most important question for 2011?

At the College Football Roundtable each week, we ask each member of the college football coverage staff for their opinion about a topic in college football. There are two questions this week, one today and one Sunday.

TODAY'S QUESTION: On Wednesday, we delved into the biggest questions heading into the summer. Which one do you think is the most important?

Olin Buchanan's answer:
To me the answer is obvious: How will Jim Harbaugh's departure affect Stanford? Harbaugh's impact on college football was undeniably dramatic. In just four years, he transformed Stanford's football program from a one-win disaster to national championship contender. The Cardinal finished 12-1 and ranked fourth in the nation last season. The only loss was to Oregon, which lost by three points in the national title game. Harbaugh has left for the NFL. Hey, QB Andrew Luck still is there and David Shaw may prove to be a tremendous coach. But I can't help but wonder if Stanford will remain a championship contender without the man who turned the program around.

Tom Dienhart's answer:
Without a doubt: Who is going to be the quarterback at Alabama? If the Crimson Tide are the legit national title contenders that many think they are, Nick Saban must answer this question. Greg McElroy was a steady leader who has departed. Sophomore A.J. McCarron and redshirt freshman Phillip Sims are battling for the spot. And the spring did little to settle the issue. Whether McCarron or Sims wins the job, the quarterback likely won't be asked to do a lot of heavy lifting for a team that will be built around a strong defense and powerful running game. Still, McCarron, a classic pocket passer, and Sims, a mobile option who can wing it, are more talented than McElroy, meaning the Tide offense could be among the SEC's best if either develops quickly.

David Fox's answer:
The most important question is the identity of the quarterback at Alabama. All the other pieces in Tuscaloosa appear to be in place for a national title run, but the margin for error is going to be slim. The Tide have to go to Penn State in the second game of the season. Alabama is a better team, but Happy Valley is not where you want your first-year starting quarterback to have jitters. And if not there, there's a game at Florida three weeks later. Alabama's quarterback questions could impact another national championship hopeful in LSU, which visits Tuscaloosa on Nov. 5. Will that game be for the SEC West title and an undefeated season or will one team be looking to play the role of spoiler?

Mike Huguenin's answer:
Alabama is a legit national title contender if it receives competent quarterback play, so I think that's the biggest question. Oregon's defense, Stanford's play without Jim Harbaugh and Florida State's offensive line also are key questions for this fall, but Alabama question trumps them. This Alabama team has the look of the 2009 Tide team that won the national title. The defense could be excellent and RB Trent Richardson will be the focal point of the offense. But either A.J. McCarron or Phillip Sims has to provide a steady hand at quarterback, or all the other positives eventually will be outweighed.

Steve Megargee's answer:
I'm most interested in seeing how Stanford adjusts to Jim Harbaugh's departure, though we might not know the answer to that question until well after this season. Stanford probably would have entered this season in the top five if Harbaugh and QB Andrew Luck had both returned. Harbaugh's move to the NFL likely will cause Stanford to open the year in the top 10 or top 15 instead, but Luck's return ensures that Stanford remains a legitimate national title contender. But I'm even more interested in seeing how this affects Stanford in the long term. Harbaugh was coaching and recruiting at a level that made Stanford a threat to develop into an annual BCS contender before the San Francisco 49ers hired him away. Rather than going for a big name or hiring a proven head coach, Stanford replaced Harbaugh by promoting offensive coordinator David Shaw. The relatively smooth transition should pay off in the short term for Stanford, but I wonder if Stanford would have been better off in the long run by hiring someone with more of a track record. But the answer to that question likely will come in 2013 or 2014 rather than 2011.

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