2014 CFN Preview - Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama TE O.J. Howard
Alabama TE O.J. Howard
Posted Jul 21, 2014

Preview 2014 - As good as the Crimson Tide might be, there could be a problem. (Getty Images)

Alabama Crimson Tide

Preview 2014

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By Pete Fiutak 

- 2014 Alabama Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players
- VOD: College football breakdowns on Campus Insiders

Head coach: Nick Saban
8th year: 79-15
19th year overall: 170-57-1
Returning Lettermen
Off. 23, Def. 23. ST 2
Letterment Lost: 22
Ten Best Bama Players
1. RB T.J. Yeldon, Jr.
2. LB Trey DePriest, Sr.
3. S Landon Collins, Jr.
4. RB Derrick Henry, Soph.
5. WR Amari Cooper, Jr.
6. TE O.J. Howard, Soph.
7. DE A'Shawn Robinson, Soph.
8. OT Cam Robinson, Fr.
9. WR/KR Christion Jones, Sr.
10. RB Kenyan Drake, Jr.
2014 Schedule

Aug. 30 West Virginia (in Atl)
Sep. 6 Florida Atlantic
Sep. 13 Southern Miss
Sep. 20 Florida
Oct. 4 at Ole Miss
Oct. 11 at Arkansas
Oct. 18 Texas A&M
Oct. 25 at Tennessee
Nov. 8 at LSU
Nov. 15 Mississippi State
Nov. 22 Western Carolina
Nov. 29 Auburn

Are there signs of Alabama cracking? Did Nick Saban fix the problem, or is there another 2014 Sugar Bowl or 2013 Iron Bowl out there lurking?

Everyone will have Alabama in the preseason top three, partly because of the brand name and partly because the recruiting has been so jaw-dropping good that there’s no way this team is going to be anything less than fantastic all season long.

While recruiting is hardly a sure-thing, it’s foolproof if you get tremendous hauls year after year after year – the odds are always going to be in your favor if you recruit like Saban does. According to the Scout.com rankings, Bama was No. 2 in 2012, No. 4 in in 2013, and No. 1 last year. More than that, when Saban really wants a guy, he usually gets him.

So on pure talent alone, at the moment, there’s Alabama, Florida State, and then there’s a slight sub-level with the Ohio States and Texas A&Ms of the world hanging around the top of the food chain. That means there’s no such thing as rebuilding for the Crimson Tide, and it also means that last season was a complete and utter disaster, even if it would’ve been classified as a dream campaign for most other programs. However, there’s a problem, and it still needs to be taken care of.

Much of the attention this offseason was on the offense and the loss of QB AJ McCarron, but the attack cranked out close to 6,000 yards on the season, comes back fully loaded with NFL skill position players galore, and despite the two losses to close things out, destroyed Auburn and Oklahoma for over 1,000 yards of combined offense. Lane Kiffin is doing a nice job so far as the new offensive coordinator of simplifying things, but there’s no real problem on that side of the ball.

For a program that will consider the season a failure if it doesn’t win the national championship, it had better figure out how to stop a dangerously mobile quarterback, and it has most of the season to figure it out.

Johnny Manziel ended up winning the 2012 Heisman after what he did against Alabama, and even though the Tide took their defensive foot off the gas, Notre Dame’s Everett Golson was relatively effective running around and making plays in the BCS championship blowout, too.

After an entire offseason of supposed focus on stopping Texas A&M offense, Saban and the defensive coaches were pantsed by Mr. Football and company to the tune of 628 yards of total Aggie offense in the epic early season shootout. But that was supposed to be just Johnny Manziel being Johnny Manziel.

After lulling the world into a false sense of defensive security with great defensive performance after great defensive performance – missing Dak Prescott in the Mississippi State win probably helped feed the illusion – then came the Auburn nightmare, which will forever be defined by “Davis! Davis!! Davis!!!,” but was really made possible by a late touchdown drive by Nick Marshall to tie it. When the Tide defense had to come through like it has done time and again, it didn’t.

But Alabama was supposed to be motivated to get back on the field and make a big statement against Oklahoma – until Trevor Knight pulled his own version of Manziel.

Did Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart figure this out? Because that’s going to be the biggest question of the 2014 college football season.

Again, the talent is there, and it’s undeniable. It’s just a question of whether or not it can get the job done for what Alabama hopes is a 15-game season.

The Crimson Tide are going to look every bit the College Football Playoff sure thing for most of the season, thanks to a relatively favorable schedule with no offensive juggernauts to deal with – Ole Miss will be dangerous, though - until getting a Manziel-less Texas A&M at home in mid-October. LSU is great again, but it’s going to be more of a powerful team than an explosive one, at least in the biggest games, and there’s no Georgia, Missouri or South Carolina to deal with.

So will Alabama’s amazing defensive numbers and rankings be real? Of course, but the world might not know whether or not this year’s team has an Achilles’ heel until the Auburn game, and then, possibly, against Marcus Mariota and Oregon, or Braxton Miller and Ohio State.

But it all keeps going back to talent. NFL scouts are drooling over the Alabama running backs, the receiving corps is fantastic, and the line is once again outstanding. The defense is full of a who’s who of four and five-star talent, and even the one slight problem of last year, the secondary, is at least full of upside.

Consider it a mortal lock. Alabama is going to win at least ten games for the seventh straight season, but can it go unbeaten for the first time since 2009? It sort of doesn’t matter, and it might not make a difference whether or not the defense has been tweaked. All that anyone cares about is whether or not Saban is holding up the new College Football Playoff trophy in Dallas with confetti flying around him. The talent is there to make that happen.

What to watch for on offense: All eyes will be on Lane Kiffin. Like him or not, issues and all, a reasonable case could be made that Kiffin is still better than most of the head coaches in college football in terms of recruiting and offensive production, but he’s not leading USC anymore, or any other program, as Alabama’s offensive coordinator. The pressure is on to not only keep the production going after a better-than-given-credit-for season from the 2013 Alabama offense, but to make it even more efficient and even better despite the loss of QB AJ McCarron. Alabama has kept details of what Kiffin is about to do mum, but the playbook is being made easier, taking advantage of players who are simply better than the opposing defense, often by a lot. He’s a pro-style coach with pro talent, and with the easier O, the goal is to get everyone to get the basics down so well that the pace will naturally speed up.

What to watch for on defense: Who’s going to play in the secondary? The one big concern going into last season was the lack of a Dee Milliner-type corner to lock things down. While there weren’t any problems against the average passing games, and giving up 13 touchdown passes and just 2,344 yards on the season isn’t bad, five of the scoring plays came against Texas A&M, two came against Auburn and four against Oklahoma – quick math; 11 of the 13 touchdown passes came in the two losses and the near-miss against the Aggies. Alabama is 2-5 in the last seven games when the defense gave up two passing scores, and this year, while Deion Belue is gone along with safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, and now more reshuffling needs to be done. They have to be more productive against the better passers.

The team will be far better if… the kicking game doesn’t stink. Is Adam Griffith ready? A decent kickoff man last year, he hit just one of his three field goal tries, missing a 30-yarder against Georgia State and missing a 57-yarder against Auburn – it sort of turned into a big deal. Rarely does the placekicking make a huge difference for Alabama, but Cade Foster failed on three makeable field goals against Auburn. Can Griffith step in and make sure the situation is settled? The top placekicking prospect in the nation two years ago, he has the leg and he has the potential to be great. He just can’t cost the team that didn’t come away with enough points in the red zone.

The Schedule: This is about as easy as could reasonably be asked for. The Crimson Tide don't play a 2013 bowl team until October, and faces just two - at Ole Miss and Texas A&M - before November 8th. In all, there are just five games against teams that went bowling last season, and none against the non-conference foes. West Virginia should get absolutely drilled in the season opener, and the rest of the world outside the SEC is a joke.

Getting Florida at home and Tennessee on the road is a help - South Carolina and Georgia are probably the East's two best teams, and they're not on the slate - and the two difficult road games - at Ole Miss and at LSU - come after getting a week off. The one big down side is the midseason stretch of four road games in five dates, but Texas A&M and Auburn are at home, as is a potentially scary game against an improved Mississippi State.

Best offensive player: Junior RB T.J. Yeldon. It’s not like Mark Ingram is tearing up the NFL, and Trent Richardson is hovering around mega-bust category, but that doesn’t mean the next-level types aren’t interested in what Alabama is trotting out in its backfield. Yeldon is a dangerous runner with excellent size and outstanding speed, and he’s a good receiver, too – but Derrick Henry might be even better, and if and when Kenyan Drake is back in the mix, he could be the team’s most effective back when he gets his chances. However, it’s Yeldon’s running game early on, but he’ll split the work. On the plus side, he’ll be fresh without having to carry the entire workload. However, he won’t get the stats to be in the Heisman chase.

Best defensive player: Senior LB Trey DePriest. With prototype size on the inside, he’s a tough middle man with huge hitting ability and the leadership to be the next great Alabama linebacker. Crimson Tide linebackers rarely put up massive numbers compared to other top defenders, but it’s more about leadership, big games, and doing everything right as the star of one of the nation’s best defenses. That’s DePriest. He can get behind the line at times, but his real worth will be as the one everything will work around. As the only returning starter in the linebacking corps – even though there’s experience coming back – he’ll have to do even more in what needs to be an all-star season.

Key player to a successful season: Junior QB Jacob Coker. Let’s just say that Alabama quarterbacks didn’t look ready to replace Mr. McCarron this offseason. Blake Sims and Cooper Bateman have talent, but can either one be consistent? That might not get a chance is Coker is everything he’s supposed to be. Transferring over from Florida State after the rise of Jameis Winston, Coker has the size and the massive arm to stretch the field and make the dangerous receiving corps shine. The key will be to limit the mistakes and be efficient like McCarron had to do, but he’ll also have to pull at least one big win out of his hat – he has to be the leader, even though he needs experience.

The season will be a success if ... Alabama wins the inaugural College Football Playoff. Not making the four-team playoff – no matter how – would be an epic disaster, but really, just getting into the final four would be a good year, even for Alabama. Of course, the program measures seasons by adding to the pile of national championships, and considering all the talent brought in, it’s win or bust.

Key game: Nov. 8 at LSU. Considering the Texas A&M and Auburn showdowns are at home, the big focus will be on the date in Death Valley in what, at the very least, will go a long way to defining the national title picture, and it could turn out to be the SEC title game if both teams are as good as expected. There was a reason AJ. McCarron and Nick Saban had their big embrace after last year’s 38-17 win – everyone in the program knows what a war the LSU game always is. Expect another battle, and if the Crimson Tide can come away with the win, it’s smooth sailing – ha! – with the last three games against Mississippi State, Western Carolina and, of course, Auburn at home.

2013 Fun Stats:
- First Half Scoring: Alabama 300 – Opponents 83
- Fourth Down Conversions: Alabama 7-of-12 (58%) – Opponents 5-of-19 (26%)
- Punt Return Average: Alabama 14.2 yards – Opponents 4.5 yards
- 2014 Alabama Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players