TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The forecast for Alabama's 2011 season should become significantly clearer within the next month.
At least three of the Crimson Tide's biggest stars — wide receiver Julio Jones, tailback Mark Ingram and defensive end Marcell Dareus — are juniors who are regarded as likely first-round NFL draft picks if they declare themselves eligible.
The deadline for that is Jan. 18.
"I think there are a lot of guys who are ready to come out now," said quarterback Greg McElroy, a senior. "Whether or not they do, they have to weigh their options."
And coach Nick Saban has modified his standard advice somewhat for underclassmen with thoughts of turning pro to take into account the NFL's uncertain labor situation.
"Typically, if guys are first-round picks I tell them I support them going out in the draft," said Saban, a former Miami Dolphins coach. "With the unknowns this year, I've kind of reduced that to guys that are a top-15 pick or they don't have a chance to move up in the future."
He wouldn't discuss individual situations, but it's pretty evident the Tide has some hot commodities in that junior class. Dareus especially is mostly projected as a top-10 pick in mock drafts.
That doesn't even take into account two-time All-America safety Mark Barron, who is out for the Capital One Bowl against No. 7 Michigan State with a torn pectoral muscle, or third-year sophomore linebacker Dont'a Hightower.
Dareus and Ingram, the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner, stuck to stock answers about waiting until after the bowl game before they worry about that, while Jones wasn't available to reporters this week.
It seems likely that at least Jones, Dareus and Ingram would get their status evaluated by the NFL Collegiate Advisory Committee.
"Coach Saban says it's a good idea to get evaluated," Dareus said. "Other than that, wait and see."
Tide fans will have to take the same approach. Saban indicated he doesn't think all of his juniors have made their final decisions yet, but added that how they fare in the bowl game could have an impact on their draft stock also.
"Those decisions are probably ongoing with most of the players," the coach said. "And I do think that it benefits all the players to play well in this game, because they will be evaluated."
Jones, Ingram and Dareus have all dealt with injuries this season. Jones was the only one to put up big numbers. He broke a bone in his left hand against South Carolina on Oct. 9, but played through it and had his best season: 75 catches, 1,084 yards and seven touchdowns.
Dareus missed the first two games under an NCAA suspension for accepting improper benefits from an agent and then was bothered a nagging ankle injury much of the season. He had 31 tackles, nine tackles for a loss and 3½ sacks.
Dareus, the defensive MVP of last year's national championship game, said he doesn't see his name scroll across the bottom of the screen when ESPN rates its top draft prospects.
"I don't mean to disappoint anybody, but honestly I don't watch ESPN like that," he said. "The only time I watch it is when my roommate, Jerrell Harris, watches it and he makes me watch it. I don't focus on that. I'm worried about this last game, focus in, get a 'W.' Do the best we can out there. I don't look at the rankings, I don't look at the big boards, nothing like that."
Ingram missed the first two games after knee surgery and didn't come close to the numbers from his Heisman season in 2009. He rushed for 816 yards and 11 touchdowns, and didn't crack the 100-yard mark again after doing it in both of his first two games.
As for the NFL, Ingram said: "My main focus now is preparing ourselves to play a great bowl game and finish the season strong and get a 10-win season. Then after the bowl game, I'll sit down with coach and my family, and we'll make a decision."
Three Tide teammates have parlayed an early jump into the first round the past two years. Offensive tackle Andre Smith went sixth overall to Cincinnati in 2009. Last season, the Raiders picked linebacker Rolando McClain (eighth) and Houston took less-heralded cornerback Kareem Jackson at No. 20.
"It's just different for every individual," McElroy said. "You look at a guy like Kareem Jackson last year, who probably if you would have asked, we all would have said, 'Yeah. Maybe play another year. Not sure where you're gonna go.'
"He ends up going the 20th overall pick, signing a big contract and now he's starting for the Texans. I think that's something that has to be weighed individually by the players, what their needs are, where they are in their academic requirements and just what they want to accomplish."