The State of the Union of Alabama Football
By Larry Burton
The post season letdown by the Crimson Tide football team was not a collapse. It was not the end of the glory years of the Nick Saban era. It was not the beginning of the end. To quote Nick Saban himself, it simply “Is what it is”.
There are Alabama players departing the team who have mentioned that there was “a few” players who didn’t completely buy into the system this season as they had in the past that helped cause some of the late season letdowns. While apathy was the biggest concern of the season following back to back championships, few thought it would happen, but it did. Sometimes a loss or two helps shake things up and makes a team hungry again.
That is what I expect will happen to this Alabama Crimson Tide team.
Losing McCarron, Moseley and Clinton-Dix is no more of a blow to the team than it was losing McElroy, Hightower and Milliner. Let’s be frank about something, there is no college football team in America so loaded top to bottom at every position with as much talent as this Alabama team. You don’t have five years of top recruiting classes in a row and have an empty shelf. Much like the old Sonny and Cher song, “The Beat Goes On” just like it always has in the Saban era.
After a disappointing 2013 season, the defense not only has a lot of room for improvement but a lot of expectations that it will in fact be a better, more productive unit overall. Dillon Lee looks like a star of the future, Landon Collins proved that he could not only fill Vinnie Sunseri’s shoes, but proved he has a much higher ceiling.
The most glaring problem in Alabama’s defense was plugging the middle, something that Terrence “Mt.” Cody, Josh Chapman and Jesse Williams made look easy and the successors found difficult. Junior Brandon Ivory did a passable job until he went down with a second injury in late October and Darren Lake didn’t seem able to fill the gap. Third in last year’s list was 6-5, 285 lb. Korren Kirven, who played very sparsely after redshirting the year before.
The Nick Saban / Kirby Smart defense doesn’t work as well when they don’t have superstar keeping the middle of the defensive line safe from the inside running game. If Ivory can stay healthy, he may be able to fill the middle until the next star steps up. Ivory has potential, but he has only shown what he is capable of in spurts. If he has the senior season many think he’s capable of, that problem is solved.
On offense, replacing McCarron is not the problem many think it will be. History shows that Alabama does it’s best with first year starting quarterbacks. McElroy won as a rookie, so did McCarron, so why is it Alabama fans find it so hard to believe that this can happen again?
Right now, with speculation over just who the heir apparent will be at the forefront of every Alabama fan’s mind, the real truth is that the man is not as important as the machine. There’s a reason that Nick Saban’s quarterbacks have all been branded as “Game Managers”. The Saban system makes it easy for a quarterback to look good with good to above average skills and for someone with great skills to look great. Anyone who is either excited or sickened by the hire of Lane Kiffin to run that offense, the real truth is that Kiffin will at most simply be allowed to tweak it a little, not make any wholesale changes.
What Saban recognized most about Kiffin was his ability to bring in top recruits and work well with quarterbacks. So why does Saban, who usually ends each recruiting season with a top class and needs help recruiting in the same way that Einstein needed help with his math homework, think that Kiffin could be a help? With a new QB coming in and given Kiffin’s record of helping develop quarterbacks, he could actually help the 2014 Crimson Tide. That is if Saban can keep him muzzled and out of trouble.
With quality running backs coming back and a stable of great receivers, Alabama certainly has much on the plate for Kiffin to work with. Those running backs will help ease the pressure a new quarterback will feel less pressured to have it all his shoulders. Also, having such experienced, talented receivers who can help teach the quarterback can only help ease him into a winning way.
With two experienced centers, a solid left guard returning, and a returning senior right tackle, the nucleus of a good offensive line exists. They’ll be a battle for the much ballyhooed left tackle position among a talented group and at right guard, Junior Alphonse Taylor will finally get the chance to show what he can do with a starting job in a full time season.
Now for special teams, the talent is there, but the experience and proof of worth is still out there waiting to be judged. Make no mistake about it, losing Cody Mandell will be a real loss for Alabama and perhaps something that hasn’t sunk in for most Alabama fans that in losing both AJ McCarron and Vinnie Sunseri, Alabama loses the only two players that took practices as a holder for kicks and extra points. That position is also up for grabs. While Adam Griffith seems to be the heir apparent for the placekicking duties, it will be a while before Alabama fans forget his miss in the Auburn game that was run back for a touchdown. The good news for Griffith is that there’s no where to go but up from where he starts the season.
Overall, Alabama will not start the season as a national championship contending team.
Heresy for an Alabama writer?
No, not at all.
While Alabama will not start the season as a national contending team, with the talent level they possess, they can grow into one as the season goes on.
While West Virginia should fall in the win column based simply on the experience and talent level on hand, it will serve to show fans just how far the Tide has come along in the spring and summer with the new personnel. Easy wins should follow with games against Florida Atlantic and Southern Miss and then comes Florida.
Like the Crimson Tide, Florida has both questions and talent and could go either way. The winner of this game will start to solidify themselves as an SEC contender and the loser could be looking at trouble finishing the season in Atlanta. While a Gator win would surprise many of the Alabama fans, it is a possibility. A convincing Alabama win however, could go a long way in making the team feel like a solid unit or get them cocky and set up to be brought back to reality after an off week when they take on the always dangerous Ole Miss team.
Should the Tide escape that game, easy games follow with Arkansas, Tennessee and Texas A&M. Texas A&M easy? Yes, without Johnny Football and the other departing Aggies, A&M will find themselves in a rebuilding mode this upcoming season. And next comes LSU.
The LSU Tigers face another year of losing key people, this time from the offense, but like Alabama, they always seem to have a reserve of talent from years of top recruiting classes and this year is no exception. Usually the road to the SEC championship in the West is decided by this game but the Tide will still have to face a rejuvenated Auburn team and if LSU doesn’t get the pieces in place this season, then Auburn could be the deciding game.
To sum it all up, the state of Alabama football is solid. The losses in personnel the team faces this year is no more critical than past years when the Tide performed well and won it all. The talent level on the team is high and key players have the nucleus of providing leadership for the replacements.
The early schedule is favorable to the Alabama team building confidence and rhythm and the only games that should present problems are Ole Miss, LSU and Auburn.While it may not start the season as a national championship team, it has all the parts in place to become one by season’s end.
In short, this is Nick Saban’s team and the sky is the limit. The state of the union of Alabama football looks pretty darn good.
Larry is an award winning writer whose work has appeared in almost every college football venue. Now he primarily writes for Touchdown Alabama Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/LBSportswriter