Depending on the angle from which you squint at it, 2014 was either a massively successful rebuilding year for Alabama, in which a lot of things broke right and they stole an SEC championship – or it was a disappointment, showing the conference’s vulnerability in the four-team playoff era. Either way, Alabama heads into 2015 with similar questions to those the ’14 squad faced, and the answers it finds will be the difference between a Citrus Bowl berth and national title #16.
OFFENSE: Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Jake Coker enters the fall as the favorite to win the starting quarterback job. A graduate transfer from Florida State, Coker figured to serve as the bridge into the post-AJ McCarron world, but was beaten out by fifth-year senior Blake Sims last fall. Now a fifth-year senior himself, Coker appears to have the lead in the race to start but is getting a big push from redshirt freshman David Cornwell. Coker winning the job would be a positive sign for the program in 2015; he has all the talent and arm strength in the world, and if he can attain a level of comfort and consistency within Lane Kiffin’s offense, he’d continue Nick Saban’s Alabama-career-long streak of trusting the most experienced quarterback on his roster.
Sims, a converted running back, was never the most gifted passer but made up for it with superior knowledge of the system and security blankets named Amari Cooper and T.J. Yeldon. The bad news for Coker or whoever wins the 2015 starting job is that those security blankets are gone. Cooper, who I think it’s fair to call the best wide receiver in Alabama history, covered up a lot of offensive flaws last year with his precise route-running and ability to get yards after the catch. In his place are a legion of unproven receiving options, with spring game stars Robert Foster and Ar’Darius Stewart probably leading the way.
The post-Yeldon running back depth is maybe even more worrisome. Derrick Henry is the workhorse and unquestioned #1 back this year, but Henry has shown a tendency to struggle in crowds and tends to run better in space, outside the tackle box. Kenyan Drake is all the way back from a gruesome injury but is a hybrid player who will see time at wide receiver. Damien Harris is a five-star recruit but a true freshman who didn’t play spring ball, and Bo Scarbrough is working his way back from a torn ACL.
The bad news for the Alabama offense is that nine of the eleven starters departed this past offseason. The good news is that the two remaining starters, Cam Robinson and Ryan Kelly, are first-team All-SEC offensive linemen. Kelly may be the team’s most indispensable player, as Alabama’s mid-season offensive dry spell last year coincided with Kelly’s injury against Ole Miss and subsequent absence at Arkansas.
DEFENSE: Like some recent great Alabama teams (2009, 2011), the defense projects as a big strength and might be asked to carry the offense from time to time. The defensive line especially is crazy stacked, featuring All-SEC end/tackle A’Shawn Robinson and pass rusher Jonathan Allen. The depth here is so ridiculous that Da’Shawn Hand, the consensus #1 defensive line prospect in 2014, is listed on some depth charts as third-team.
Reggie Ragland, a first-team All-SEC linebacker, is back from his senior season and has inherited the defensive signal-caller role from Rolando McClain and C.J. Mosley before him. As with the defensive line, there are a lot of talented dudes around him and I’m not going to bore you with all the names.
The secondary has been a work in progress since 2011’s collection of NFL talent left Tuscaloosa, but there’s reason to hope this is the year Alabama puts it back together. Cyrus Jones, a scapegoat in 2013, had a great 2014 and will anchor the unit this year. Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey, highly touted 2014 recruits, will cover the other side of the field. While the Tide will miss Landon Collins holding down the middle, if new secondary coach Mel Tucker can get better overall deep ball coverage out of his safeties this year, the defensive backfield could be a clear upgrade over 2014’s.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Did I say Ryan Kelly was Alabama’s most indispensable player? Just kidding! I meant JK Scott, Punting Wizard. Traditional punting statistics don’t really do Scott justice, because traditional punting statistics assume the goal is raw power every time. Scott has that raw power, seen every time a return man runs back 10 yards from his spot to field the kick, but more importantly he’s a trajectory artist. Need a field-flipper from deep in your own territory? Scott’s got you. Need a coffin corner to pin the other team behind their 10 yard line? He’s got that too. Want to neutralize a dangerous return man by surrounding him with defensive players before the ball re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere? He’ll hang one high for you. JK Scott vs. the giant JumboTron in Cowboys Stadium will be a legitimately intriguing battle when Alabama opens vs. Wisconsin on September 5.
Adam Griffith returns for another season as placekicker. A highly touted kicking prospect three years ago, Griffith got off to a hot start last year but was derailed by a back injury. If he’s healthy, he’s got the talent to be the kicker Alabama’s been waiting for since Leigh Tiffin graduated.
SCHEDULE: And here’s the catch. 2015 Alabama is playing the country’s hardest schedule, according to Phil Steele. It starts with the aforementioned trip to Dallas and features games at Georgia, Texas A&M, Mississippi State, and Auburn. The home schedule’s not much kinder, as Arkansas, LSU, Tennessee, and Ole Miss all come to Tuscaloosa. In the 6-1-1 SEC scheduling era of only one rotating opponent, it matters a lot whether you catch a cupcake on that rotation game, and… well, @Georgia is not a cupcake.
Just to make the country’s hardest schedule a bit harder, the SEC decided to give three consecutive teams (@A&M, Tennessee, LSU) a bye before playing Alabama. That’s the highest number of post-bye opponents any team in the country is facing. In that sense it feels a bit like 2010, a talented team that got everyone’s best-rested shot.
OUTLOOK: Unlike, say, 2012 and 2013, when you could look up and down the schedule and only see two or three real tests, this is tough. The offense is rebuilt in an era that demands great offense, and there are traps all up and down the schedule. This team could lose four games just as easily as it could go undefeated, but more likely the result is something akin to last year: a road slip-up somewhere early, and a need to nail that annual LSU-Miss State-Auburn closing stretch in order to have a shot at the SEC title. The talent is there, though; in the Saban era, the talent will always be there
The Braves beat Miami 6-3 last night, by the way.