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College Football Preview 2014-2015: 2. Alabama Crimson Tide

T.J. Yeldon and Brian Vogler
2. Alabama Crimson Tide 

Coach: Nick Saban (8th year)
2013-2014 Record: 11-2 (7-1 SEC)

August 30th vs. West Virginia (in Atlanta)
September 6th vs. Florida Atlantic
September 13th vs. Southern Miss
September 20th vs. Florida
October 4th @ Ole Miss
October 11th @ Arkansas
October 18th vs. Texas A&M
October 25th @ Tennessee
November 8th @ LSU
November 15th vs. Mississippi State
November 22nd vs. Western Carolina
November 29th vs. Auburn

The first 11 games of last season, no team appeared up to the challenge to beat Alabama. The Crimson Tide were 11-0 and had pummeled everyone in their path, with the exception of a 49-42 victory over Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel. Then, in the Iron Bowl, Chris Davis returned Alabama's missed game-winning field goal attempt and the landscape of college football changed. Suddenly, the Tide were out of the SEC Championship Game and landed in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma in a so-called "consolation game". There, Trevor Knight threw all over the Tide defense and gave the Sooners a huge upset over 'Bama. Although those last two games were massive disappointments and four-year starter A.J. McCarron is gone, it is Alabama and that means there are players ready to step up and lead this team back to a championship.

Backfield: Things looked bleak in Tuscaloosca with the loss of record-setting McCarron until the off season transfer of Florida State backup Jacob Coker. Coker really impressed Florida State coaches during his time in Tallahassee and he has the chance to arrive in Alabama and take over the QB job. The 6'5", 230 pound junior is gifted with excellent mobility and senses pressure very well. He was so impressive last spring in Tallahassee he gave eventual Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston a serious run for the quarterback job while at FSU. But, Nick Saban warned people not to just assume Coker was going to Alabama's starter. Senior Blake Sims has been great in mop up duties and a reserve role and will benefit from learning underneath McCarron the last couple years. Redshirt freshman Cooper Bateman is also a possibility, though he appears to be a longshot in the race. Coker or whoever takes over the quarterback gig won't have to do too much, Alabama will always be a run-first team under Saban. Saban and new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will have a plethora of options at running back, including junior T.J. Yeldon, rising sophomore Derrick Henry and underrated playmaker Kenyan Drake. Yeldon led the Tide in rushing last season, rushing for 1,235 yards and 14 touchdowns, averaging six yards per carry. Though, fumbles continue to be an issue for the junior and there have been questions about his durability. Henry was pretty quiet for much of 2013, getting just 36 carries. But, he was very effective in those 36 carries, rushing for 382 yards (10.6 average) and three touchdowns. His performance in the Sugar Bowl was extremely impressive and proved he is a star in the making. He ran all over Oklahoma, recording 282 yards and two touchdowns. Even with him being a backup to Yeldon, he could have a breakout season and possibly compete for a Heisman. Kenyan Drake is a versatile runner who ran for eight scores in 2013 and is definitely a big play threat.

Receivers: After a huge freshman season, Amari Cooper's stats and productivity took a major dip last season. But, he still was the Tide's leading receiver, picking up 45 receptions for 736 yards and four touchdowns. His struggles can be credited to injury issues and the fact defenses finally figured out how to stop him after his dominant 2012. Cooper is a tremendous athlete who brings versatility and a smart, effective route runner to the table. Defenses won't be able to just focus on Cooper and double team him, because 'Bama is stacked at receiver. Senior DeAndrew White can reel in any throw that is in the general vicinity and he should be very reliable. Also returning is special teams demon, senior Christion Jones, who could have a special season. Jones makes defenders miss with his crafty moves and has excellent vision. He had 36 receptions for 349 yards, numbers that could go up big time this season. Sophomore Chris Black was pretty quiet throughout 2013, picking up just 8 catches for 79 yards, but did manage to grab two touchdowns. Black has electrifying playmaking ability and is super shifty. Add to those four the return of redshirt freshman Robert Foster, a pretty good pickup a season ago in the recruiting cycle and the addition of Monroe, Louisiana product Cameron Sims and Alabama has all the weapons to help out Coker whoever does start at QB. Tight end could be a real strength for the Tide, who return rapidly improving sophomore O.J. Howard along with reliable senior Brian Vogler. Howard made some mistakes in his true freshman season but really seemed to improve as the season went on. With Cooper and others stretching defenses deep, Howard will be able to work the middle of the field and make a lot of plays. Vogler is more of a blocker but he can really make an impact in the red zone.

Offensive Line: The 2012 Alabama offensive line might have been the best in the history of college football with guys like Cyrus Kouandjio, Barrett Jones, D.J. Fluker and Chance Warmack leading the way for the ground attack. Although it wasn't as dominant a season ago, it was still obviously very strong. Kouandjio is gone and off to the NFL, but his brother, Arie returns along with two other starters. Arie Kouandjio is a steady vet at left guard who moves extremely well and has proven to be very productive in his time in Tuscaloosca. Also up the middle, will be junior center Ryan Kelly, who has the chance to be one of the best centers in the entire nation. Kelly is very athletic for a guard and is a great run blocker who should take big steps in his second season as starter. The other returning starter on the offensive line is senior right tackle Austin Shepherd. Shepherd is a brick wall on the right side who is gifted with nice, long arms and a strong, steady base. He might not be the star at tackle the Tide have had in years past, but he should be awfully productive this year. The loss of Kouandjio really hurts at left tackle, but Saban and 'Bama have a huge talent waiting to take over. True freshman Cameron Robinson is the top offensive tackle and overall offensive line prospect in the 2014 class and he enrolled early to get a shot at starting at LT. The 6'6", 325 pound beast of a freshman was huge pickup from Louisiana, who is oozing with potential. Sophomore Brandon Greene still has a real shot at starting if Robinson stumbles at all. Greene is another massive linemen who is pretty athletic and a good pass blocker. Not only did Saban bring in Robinson, he also brought in a number of other great offensive line prospects. Iowa product Ross Pierschbacher is one of the top guards in the 2014 class. The hard-nosed linemen just looks like a Midwest product and he was a nice addition for 'Bama. The Tide also brought in the top two center prospects in the recruiting cycle, in Josh Casher and J.C. Hassenauer.

Defensive Line: Only one starter returns on the defensive line but this unit should still be very talented and have a ton of depth. The lone returning starter is nose guard Brandon Ivory, a senior that just clogs running lanes. Ivory recorded 24 tackled and 1.5 tackles for loss and he adds valuable experience and a psychical presence to Alabama's middle. Joining Ivory on the line will be rapidly improving sophomore A'Shawn Robinson, who can do a ton of things. Robinson can play a number of positions on the line with his freakish athleticism for being 6'4", 320 pounds. He picked up 5.5 sacks in 2013, numbers that could really increase this year. The likely starter a the other defensive end slot will be junior Jarran Reed. Reed is a very quick pass rusher who also could be very productive this season. Robinson and Reed will have to take over where ends Ed Stinson and Jeoffrey Pagan, who is now playing on Sundays. Junior D.J. Pettway (who will join Reed in transferring from East Mississippi Community College) was very impressive in the spring and should add very important depth on the perimeter of the unit. Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart landed one of the top pass rushers in the Class of 2014 in Virginia product Da'Shawn Hand, who is gifted with incredible size and strength but will almost certainly need some time to adjust to the college game. Expect two four-star defensive tackles O.J. Smith and Joshua Frazier to compete for serious playing time behind Ivory.

Linebackers: C.J. Mosley was the heart and soul of the Tide's fifth ranked defense and his departure will almost effect this defense in a negative way. Still, it is Alabama, meaning there is a number of players ready to step up and fill the void. Senior inside linebacker Trey DePriest is hoping to step up in a major way after a solid 2013 that included 65 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss. DePriest is a hard-hitting player who could really be a tackling machine this season. Joining DePriest in the linebacker corps will be outside linebacker Xzavier Dickson, a beast of a senior. Dickson is a linebacker gifted with great size who can blitz the quarterback and be a real disruptive force this year. The likely starter on the other side will be junior Denzel Devall, who will start at the "Jack" linebacker position. Devall will also have the chance to be a very disruptive pass rusher this season, after recording three sacks in 2013 despite being a reserve. A number of players will be competing to be the fourth starter in at linebacker, including junior Reggie Ragland, junior Dillon Lee and talented sophomore Ruben Foster. Ragland picked up 17 tackles as a little used reserve last season and proved to be a real help in rush defense, while Foster has fantastic athleticism and could be an excellent coverage linebacker. Not surprisingly, the Crimson Tide brought in a number of freshman who could find ways to make an impact now and in the future. Four-star prospect Christian Miller is rated as the No.1 outside linebacker in this class by a number of scouting services while Rashaan Evans was a steal from Auburn on signing day, who is rated as the No. 2 outside 'backer.
Landon Collins

Secondary: The Crimson Tide will lose an awfully talented player in rangy safety HaHa Clinton-Dix, who is now making plays in Green Bay. He was great at free safety but, in case you haven't figured it out yet, Alabama has players ready to make an impact and take over for him. The likely replacement for Clinton-Dix at free safety is going to be junior Geno Smith, a veteran presence. Smith had 10 tackles a season ago, but will be counted on to really be a versatile player and help in both coverage and rush defense. Joining Smith in the secondary will be junior Landon Collins, who could have a huge season after picking up All-SEC honors a season ago. Collins had 69 tackles and picked off two passes in 2013 and he has all the talent to really be fantastic in the defensive backfield. Alabama will also miss cornerback Deion Belue, who has been a very productive defensive back the last couple years for the Tide. Even with his graduation, Alabama will still have two possible shutdown corners in junior Cyrus Jones and junior Bradley Slyve. Jones played a lot a year ago and brings valuable experience to the table while Sylve has shown loads of potential. Jones is a little bit small but is very speedy and could be counted on to be a major playmaker this season. Help does arrive at cornerback in the form of talented freshman Tony Brown, a five-star talent. Brown was very impressive this spring, picking off a pass and seemed to always be around the ball. Add in the return of senior Jarrick Williams, who saw major action in 2013 and the addition of local Alabama stud, Marlon Humphrey and this secondary is extremely deep. It will be interesting to see whether Brown or Humphrey will get much action; they will certainly be ready to make an impact if they do see some snaps. Four-star safety Laurence Jones was a nice pickup who will get lost in the midst of all the other stars 'Bama brought in with this class. He should still have a nice career, with his superb athleticism and instincts.

Special Teams: Special teams could actually be a serious issue for the Tide this year, as Alabama hasn't been able to find a consistent kicker or punter. Sophomore Adam Griffith has really struggled this spring at kicker and no punter has proven themselves worthy of taking over the spot manned by longtime Cody Mandell. Christion Jones is a fantastic returner and should take some pressure off the offense.

Most teams would be expected to take a major step back after losing their three-year starter at quarterback but not Alabama. This team has all the talent to still be the SEC's best, especially at the offensive skill positions. The big question is at quarterback: is Coker as good as everyone says he is? Will he even win the job? The good news is he will have a plethora of backs to hand the ball off to and one of the nation's top receivers in Cooper. Although the schedule will not be a breeze, Alabama is talented enough to win the SEC and compete for a national championship.

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