Alabama is back in the College Football Playoff for the second year in a row, and coach Nick Saban’s team enters the postseason riding a 10-game winning streak, with nine of those victories coming by 13 points or more. The Crimson Tide own one of the nation’s top defenses, while the offense leans heavily on running back Derrick Henry. The junior is one of the frontrunners to win the Heisman Trophy in 2015 after recording 1,986 yards and 23 touchdowns. The passing game has showed improvement throughout the season for coordinator Lane Kiffin, and quarterback Jake Coker now has nearly a month to prepare and develop a better rapport with receiver Calvin Ridley.
The College Football Playoff rankings placed Alabama at No. 2 in the final release, with a matchup against Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl. If the Crimson Tide defeat the Spartans, a matchup against the winner of Oklahoma-Clemson awaits in the national championship in Glendale, Ariz.
College Football Podcast: Championship Week Recap
Playoff Teams: No. 1 Clemson I No. 2 Alabama I No. 3 Michigan State I No. 4 Oklahoma
Five Reasons Why Alabama Will Win the College Football Playoff
1. Alabama’s Defense is the Best in the Nation
Defense wins championships. That’s the old cliché used when describing teams in the playoff hunt in any league, but there’s plenty of truth in that statement. The long layoff between games can disrupt the timing for offenses, which plays into the hands of a dominant defense. Behind a deep front seven and the defensive acumen of coach Nick Saban and coordinator Kirby Smart, the Crimson Tide have arguably the nation’s best defense. Alabama limited opponents to just 14.4 points a game and 4.1 yards per play this season, generated 46 sacks (best in the nation), forced 24 turnovers and limited offenses to just 27.9 percent on successful third-down conversions.
2. Derrick Henry
It’s a deep year for talent at running back this season, but there’s a compelling case that Henry is the best of the bunch. The junior is a workhorse (339 carries), rushing for 1,986 yards and 23 touchdowns this season. Henry recorded four 200-yard efforts over his last seven games, including 271 against rival Auburn in the Iron Bowl. The junior possesses a unique blend of speed and elusiveness, along with the pure physical strength to run over or plow through defenders. Only one Power 5 team (Arkansas) was able to hold Henry under 100 yards this season. Needless to say, it’s not an easy task stopping Henry behind one of the nation’s top offensive lines. The junior can carry the Crimson Tide offense on his back during the playoffs.
3. Lines of Scrimmage
The offensive and defensive lines are often an underappreciated part of any team’s championship hopes. Out of the four teams in the playoff, Alabama might have the best – Michigan State is a close second – combination of offensive and defensive lines. The Crimson Tide’s offensive line played better over the course of the season, leading the way for rushers to average 4.8 yards per carry. Additionally, this unit cleared the way for Alabama rushers to generate four rushing plays of 50 yards or more and 28 overall scores on the ground. The pass protection was also steady, as Alabama quarterbacks were sacked only 19 times in 13 games. While the offensive line is a standout group, the defensive front is even better. The Crimson Tide seemingly has an endless wave of talented players up front. This unit led the nation in rush defense (74 yards per game), allowed only six rushing scores and limited opposing rushers to 2.4 yards per rush. This group is headlined by A’Shawn Robinson – a versatile player who can line up on the inside or outside – as well as end Jonathan Allen (10 sacks), Jarran Reed and Darren Lake. Linebacker Tim Williams (9.5 sacks) is one of the team’s best at getting to the quarterback. Alabama has the depth, talent and experience to dominate teams in the trenches on both sides of the ball.
4. The Passing Game is Improving
Alabama’s biggest preseason question mark was easily its passing game. Finding a replacement for quarterback Blake Sims and receiver Amari Cooper took a couple of games, but the Crimson Tide’s passing game is starting to find its stride. Quarterback Jake Coker finished the year with 17 touchdowns to eight interceptions, completed 65.7 percent of his passes for 2,489 yards. The senior has tossed only one pick over his last five games and posted a completion percentage of at least 60 percent in each contest during that span. Coker threw for 204 yards in Alabama’s SEC Championship victory over Florida (arguably one of the top defensive backfields in the nation), made clutch throws against Tennessee late in the fourth quarter to secure a win and tossed a key 34-yard strike to ArDarius Stewart for a score against Auburn. Not only is Coker improving, but the Crimson Tide’s receiving corps showed promise as the season progressed. Freshman Calvin Ridley (75 catches for 893 yards and five scores) is the top target for Coker, while ArDarius Stewart caught at least four passes in each of the final four games, and tight end O.J. Howard and receiver Richard Mullaney each finished the regular season with 30 or more catches. Running back Kenyan Drake is also a factor in the passing game. By no means is Alabama a juggernaut with its passing attack. However, the Crimson Tide have made progress in this department throughout the year.
5. Nick Saban and Special Teams
We will cheat a little and list two reasons here. The College Football Playoff features four outstanding coaches, but Alabama’s Nick Saban is the best of the bunch. The Crimson Tide are 103-18 under Saban’s direction and have won three national championships. Needless to say, Saban and this staff will have Alabama prepared for this game, especially after the disappointment of last year’s playoff matchup. And in one more on-field element, keep an eye on the special teams. Alabama kicker Adam Griffith has worked through some early-season struggles and ended the year with 21 connected field goals on 29 attempts. Punter JK Scott is one of the best in college football, averaging a healthy 44.2 yards per punt. Returns are in good shape with Kenyan Drake on kickoffs and Cyrus Jones (12.2 average this year and three scores) on punts.