While All-American wide receiver Amari Cooper and other notable players returned, McCarron’s likely successor, Florida State quarterback transfer Jake Coker didn’t appear to be the lock for the starting job that many expected him to win. The addition of controversial offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin to the coaching staff added yet another questionable element.
Those questions were quelled by mid-October and the Crimson Tide rode an eight-game winning streak — and win over rival Auburn — to capture the SEC West crown and play in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Eventual national champion Ohio State defeated Alabama 42-35 in the Sugar Bowl semifinal, but the team’s 2014 season was considered to be a success – even by Tide fans’ lofty standards.
Fast forward a year and fans find themselves pondering the same questions as a mass exodus of talent leaves question marks on both sides of the football.
Three Reasons Why Alabama Will Make the College Football Playoff in 2015
1. Strong Recruiting Classes
Although Cooper, Landon Collins, Trey DePriest and T.J. Yeldon have departed for professional careers, head coach Nick Saban has made claim to having the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class at the end of National Signing Day something of a rite of passage each year. A bevy of talented players are ready to make their names household ones in 2015.
Former class of 2013, five-star wide receiver Robert Foster dominated Alabama’s spring game behind a six-catch, 125-yard performance that earned him co-MVP honors along with fellow wideout ArDarius Stewart (two touchdowns on eight catches for 118 yards). Foster redshirted in 2013 but played in nine games last season and registered 44 yards on six catches. No longer playing in the shadows of Cooper and DeAndrew White, Foster has the size (6-2) and speed to emerge as a deep threat for Coker and the Alabama passing game.
Blue-chip defensive lineman Da’Shawn Hand will look for a larger a role on ‘Bama’s defensive line. The crown jewel of Alabama’s 2013 recruiting class, Hand saw limited action on Alabama’s talented defensive line as a true freshman last year but managed to register two sacks. Crimson Tide coaches and his teammates will count on him to build off of last season’s experience and evolve into the menacing pass rusher many expect him to be. Hand played in nine games in 2014 and showed flashes of what made him the nation’s top defensive prospect out of Woodbridge (Va.) High School two seasons ago. He ended the season on a high note, as he collected two tackles in Alabama’s SEC Championship Game win over Missouri.
Talented but lesser known players Tony Brown (defensive back), Reuben Foster (linebacker), O.J. Howard (tight end) and Stewart are poised for breakout seasons, as well.
2. Derrick Henry
Henry was unstoppable in the team’s Playoff semifinal Sugar Bowl battle against the Buckeyes. But for some peculiar reason, Kiffin jettisoned the team’s running plays from the playbook in favor of the pass. The decision left many in Tuscaloosa and the college football world perplexed and elicited heavy criticism when the game clock wound down in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans as Ohio State secured its spot in the CFP National Championship Game. Henry ended the contest with 95 yards rushing and a touchdown on 13 carries in a losing effort.
Henry led the Crimson Tide in rushing in 2014 with 990 yards and 11 touchdowns while splitting carries with Yeldon. And despite his hulking size (6-3, 242) he has shown himself to be a more-than-capable pass catcher out of the backfield, hauling in five grabs for 133 yards last season. The departure of Yeldon and the uncertainty surrounding Alabama’s quarterback position will ensure that Henry gets his fair share of opportunities to lead the team and the SEC in rushing this year.
Henry, high school football’s all-time leading rusher, won’t disappoint and should sit atop the SEC rushing leaderboard at season’s end.
3. Nick Saban and Co.
History is on Alabama’s side. The Crimson Tide have experienced success under Saban that has only been shared with ‘Bama coaching legend Paul Bear Bryant. Saban enters his ninth year at the helm with an 86-17 record and a plethora of team and personal postseason awards and trophies. Under Saban, Alabama has won the SEC three times in the last six years and three national titles during that span as well.
As cliché as it sounds, in a conference as talent-laden and competitive as the SEC, coaching is more times than not the equalizer – and Alabama boasts arguably the nation’s most-talented coaching staff. In his first season, Kiffin turned relatively unknown Blake Sims into a school-record-setting quarterback, and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart once again established himself as college football’s resident defensive guru, as his unit finished 12th in the nation in total defense.
The Saban-Kiffin-Smart trio turned a season that began with many question marks into a 12-win, conference-winning campaign. There’s no reason to believe the Tide won’t do it again in 2015.
Alabama's 2015 Schedule
Athlon Projected Rankfor 2015
at Texas A&M
*Game played at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX
Three Reasons Why Alabama Won’t Make the College Football Playoff in 2015
1. Uncertainty at Quarterback
When Jameis Winston won the quarterback battle at Florida State in 2013 and the BCS National Championship Game several months later, then-FSU backup QB Jacob Coker began to file a flight plan out of Tallahassee. The Mobile, Ala., native returned home to become the successor to NFL-bound McCarron. But things didn’t go as planned. Coker found himself in a platoon with Sims in the team’s first two games of the season, before Sims seized the starting job. Coker ended the year throwing for 403 yards and four touchdowns on just 59 attempts.
The only other quarterback on Alabama’s roster with collegiate playing experience is redshirt junior Alec Morris. Morris saw action in four games last year but didn’t attempt a single pass. Following Coker and Morris are redshirt sophomore Cooper Bateman, redshirt freshman David Cornwell and true freshman Blake Barnett. While Bateman, Cornwell and Barnett are Elite 11 products with undeniable talent, they also are young, and the last thing Kiffin and Saban will want to do is prematurely subject them to SEC defenses. If Coker struggles early, Alabama may be forced to do just that. Kiffin is one of the best in his craft and Alabama pays him handsomely because of it. The Crimson Tide will expect a big return on their Kiffin investment this season.
2. Less-than-forgiving Schedule
While some SEC teams take a lot of flak for scheduling what some perceive to be underwhelming out-of-conference opponents, Alabama has never shied away from adding formidable Power Five teams to its schedule. This year is no exception. The Tide open the 2015 season on Sept. 5 in Dallas where they will play defending Big Ten West Division champion Wisconsin.
After a couple early-season tune-ups against Middle Tennessee and Louisiana-Monroe – with an intriguing home matchup against Ole Miss sandwiched between – Alabama heads into an SEC gauntlet with games at Georgia, against Arkansas and at Texas A&M.
The Crimson Tide host what many figure to be a formidable Tennessee team on Oct. 24 before a much-needed bye week prior to a home date with the LSU Tigers. The Dak Prescott-led Mississippi State Bulldogs welcome the Tide to Starkville one week later. Alabama’s reward for such a daunting task, you ask? An annual Iron Bowl date at Auburn to close the regular season.
SEC schedules are never easy to navigate unscathed, but Alabama has drawn an exceptionally difficult one in 2015.
3. Wide-open SEC West
There was once a time not too long ago when the SEC West belt was usually shared between Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge. While Alabama and LSU have proven to be the class of the West in recent history, the balance of power has started to shift to other programs.
The coaching hires of Auburn’s Will Muschamp (defensive coordinator) and Texas A&M’s John Chavis (defensive coordinator) immediately shake the landscape in the division.
Auburn is just two seasons removed from a national championship appearance, and with Chavis – whose defenses at Tennessee and LSU frequently ranked among the nation’s best – the Aggies will finally address their inability to field a defense to complement its fast-paced offense.
Arkansas and its league-best running back duo of Jonathan Williams (1,190) and Alex Collins (1,100) snatched defeat from the jaws of victory last season when Alabama narrowly escaped an upset on a late-game interception. Arkansas has been waiting a year to exact its revenge. The Razorbacks will be much improved in 2015 as head coach Bret Bielema is aiming for big things in his fourth year in Fayetteville. Ole Miss, coming off of nine wins in 2014, is no easy out either.
The SEC West is open for the taking, which not only bodes well for Alabama, but other teams looking to capitalize on the opportunity.
There were many rumblings about the status of Alabama’s football dynasty following the team’s Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma to end its 2013 season. Those rumblings only grew louder at the end of last season when Alabama lost on the same field to current defending national champion Ohio State. Alabama can ill afford to suffer another quality, postseason bowl defeat.
Part of Saban’s success at Alabama can be attributed to his refusal to remain stagnant, as seen by his moves such as bringing in Kiffin in 2014 to replace current Florida offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who left that year for Michigan. The move proved to be genius as Bama’s Kiffin-led offense produced a school-record 3,487 passing yards and finished in the top 20 in the nation in total offense.
Alabama fans hope first-year secondary coach and former Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker will enjoy the same success as Kiffin last season. The Tide return a talented, future NFL defensive back in Cyrus Jones, but the unit enters the season lacking the experience of secondary units of the past. Alabama’s secondary over the past two years has struggled to contain the passing game, finishing 11th in the SEC in passing defense last season. Tucker will be tasked with turning those numbers around.
At the end of the day, it’s hard to count Alabama out – regardless of the personnel losses. Saban and the Crimson Tide coaching staff faced many of the same questions as they entered last season, and turned in a conference-winning campaign. Expect Alabama to return to its second consecutive College Football Playoff in 2015.
— Written by Elton Hayes, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. A Washington, D.C.-based sports writer, Hayes is a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and he also has been an invited guest on “The Paul Finebaum Show.” Follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.