Top Five Reasons For Alabama Fans to be Hopeful, Top Five to Reasons to Worry
By Larry Burton
Not only as a student of the game, but as a fan myself, there are many reasons to be hopeful that the Tide can continue to roll in 2014 as it has in the past, but there are also some ominous and realistic roadblocks that lie ahead as well. Here are the top five in each category, though there may be others almost as important that just didn’t make the list of the top five.
Reasons to be Hopeful
The coaching staff remains largely intact and though some Tide fans may have to hold their nose when it comes to acknowledging Lane Kiffin now runs the offense, by all accounts I’ve heard from so far, it’s something that is working out extremely well.
Of course having Nick Saban guiding the ship is the biggest factor in the the coaching column, but the consistency of Kirby Smart and the other coaches are a reason the Tide keeps on rolling. So there’s no doubt that the number one reason the fans should be hopeful is the great coaching staff in place.
The depth of the players not only remains high, but could actually be better than at any time in the Nick Saban era. Everyone on the Alabama team this year was part of a top national recruiting class and the disparity between first, second and third team for so many positions has never been narrower. Take for example running back Kenyan Drake, who may be fighting to stay off the third team this year. He would be a starting running back on 99% of the other teams in college football without a doubt. Alabama has receivers on the bench who likewise would be starters on almost any other team in the country.
On the other side of the ball, the depth of linebackers and defensive linemen are simply staggering and while almost all of them will see some playing time, there simply is too few spots to make all them happy this season with the number of snaps they will see. That means that when they do get their shots, they’ll play like mad men to make the most of it. This could be a defensive front seven that opponents dread, even when the third stringers are getting playing time.
The schedule also has to be a huge factor in Alabama’s favor this year. West Virginia, while a quality opponent year in and year out and whose win will give the Tide some chest beating early press shouldn’t be a contest that is in question. Followed by cupcake wins over Florida Atlantic and Southern Miss, the Crimson Tide will have more than ample time to indoctrinate both their new quarterback, Jacob Coker and a rebuilt defensive secondary.
Therefore the Tide should be humming when it meets its first stiff challenge of the year, Florida. And make no mistake about it, Florida will be a better team this year than last, but Alabama will be playing them at home and it is the only team of consequence from the SEC East on the schedule this year.
The only tough road games for Alabama will be Ole Miss and LSU but it’s hard to see Ole Miss closing the gap with Alabama too much considering the Tide beat them by 25 points last year and the same could be said for LSU, which Alabama defeated last year by 21 points. Also keep in mind LSU in a rebuilding mode with a new quarterback to go along with the fact that Bama’s record playing LSU in Louisiana usually works in their favor.
That leaves only a rebuilding Texas A&M team and Auburn, both playing in Tuscaloosa as Bama’s biggest obstacles. The Texas A&M Aggies are a wildcard at this point because no one can predict how well they’ll function in the post Manziel era, but they are a well coached team and always seem to play the Tide tough. Auburn on the other hand returns much of the team that shocked the Tide last season and Bryant Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa has not intimidated them as much in the recent past as Alabama fans would like, so that game should decide not only the SEC West this season, but Alabama’s chances for a meaningful post season charge to the top.
Jacob Coker is not a rookie quarterback in the true meaning of the word, but he has never started the season as “The Man”. Well this is his shot and he comes from a “Saban like” system at FSU, so the transition won’t be as dramatic as many think. But if the Tide wins big this year, Coker will be the main reason for the success.
While Coker has said little publicly, what he has said is all the right things. There is no sense of entitlement, only one of relief. Coker has longed to be a starter, but he is intelligent enough to recognize that he never had the tools at FSU he has to work with at Alabama. The group of running backs he has to hand off to is the best stable in all of college football today without question and the receiving corps in Crimson could also be the nation’s best. Simply put, Coker doesn’t have to come to Tuscaloosa and be fantastic for the Tide to win it all again, he simply has to be consistent and good.
But if he does show the talent that everyone says he has, this offense could set new records in scoring and total yards per game. That kind of success is not in any way unreachable with Coker pulling the trigger on this offense.
The defense at Alabama year in and year out is one of the nation’s best and there is little reason to believe that this year will be any exception. If the offense can live up to it’s billing, this defense won’t have to carry the team on it’s shoulders as it has sometimes had to do in the past.
A high scoring offense will also allow the defense to perhaps take more chances this season in creating turnovers rather than just playing it safe. The speed of the front seven has never been faster at Alabama than this season and the depth has never been greater. Only the secondary is in question, but the pressure this front seven may put to bear on the quarterback could only help the situation in the somewhat shaky defensive backfield.
This defense can easily absorb a loss or two to injuries and be just as devastating with the possible exception of the defensive secondary. That secondary however, will have an easy start of the season to gel into a cohesive group and that could help make all the difference.
Reasons to be Fearful
Auburn was said to be the luckiest team in college football last season, but it has always been my contention that teams make their own luck. Yes one play in several games could have completely turned Auburn’s season the other way, but that didn’t happen. And they return a team this year that believes they will find a way to win when they have to.
Though Alabama fans always look down at Auburn as the “Little Brother” program, they should realize that they are the defending SEC Champions for a reason and return a team largely intact that earned that crown last season. Yes they could have easily lost eight games last season instead of two, but they didn’t. They came within a few plays of winning their second national championship in three years.
This is a team that the Tide should not only take seriously, but find the motivation to bury. If they don’t, then expect the same results as last season.
The defensive secondary was not that great at Alabama last season and it has the potential to be worse this year. With stars leaving early for the NFL, nowhere will the pain be felt as here, as in the loss of Sunseri and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Leading the group this season will be Landon Collins, a junior, who didn’t even begin last year as a starter.
This group doesn’t have a lot of experience and they will be burned early in the season until they come together and get comfortable as a group. Bradley Sylve, who may be the fastest man on the team, has a ton of closing speed, but is largely untested in coverage and tackling as he was converted from offense to corner. When he was tested last season, it didn’t go well, as was the case for other players who now find themselves in the defensive secondary.
Last season’s players who were torched and exposed as inexperienced included Sylve, (who started three games),Maurice Smith, Eddie Jackson (who started the first and last games of the season) and Cyrus Jones, who has shown promise, but at only 5’10” and 194 pounds, his stature is a problem at times. We don’t know who in this group may have grown from last season and be ready to step up.
Also, two players who were highly recruited but red shirted last season are still largely unknown as to what they could contribute. So expect Nick Saban to try these two, Anthony Averett and Johnathan Cook to see what they have to offer. Also look for Saban to see what incoming freshmen Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey can do. With Brown having come in early and participated in spring ball, he clearly has an edge over Humphrey.
So while the potential is there, you can only say at this point that the entire group is a best, a work in progress.
Place kicking has cost Alabama some games in the past and the fans are nervously biting their fingers these days. So far Adam Griffin has done little to calm any fears and any game that comes down to him having to make a game winning kick would be a prayer filled event for fans. Like many Alabama players, Griffin has the potential to be great, but he hasn’t lived up to his billing yet in any sense or fashion.
His debut in the Auburn game was a disaster and his spring game performance did little to instill any degree of confidence. Still, other kickers had shaky beginnings only to become rocks later on.
Alabama fans can only hope that this is the case with Griffin.
Punting last season was a field flipping event with Cody Mandell handling the punting duties. This year however, Alabama’s starting punter still hasn’t worn a jersey yet and the staff and fans don’t know what to expect from this true freshman, JK Scott from Denver. If he can’t deliver as hoped, it will fall to walk on Tuck Borie, who also is an untested freshman.
So while it looks good on paper that Scott should do well, the same was thought about Griffin who has only made one of three field goal attempts. So until we see a steady few games from Scott at punter, Tide fans should simply hope for the best at this position.
Entitlement was said to have caused Alabama’s “bad” seasons in 2010 and 2013. Too many players so used to winning, so used to being stars, so used to playing great on game day that they didn’t put in the work on practice they used to started showing up in the play of the Crimson Tide last season.
AJ McCarron, Alabama’s recently departed quarterback said of last season, “I think one of our players said it best: Our victory is what defeated us. When you win, sometimes you start to lose focus on the things that are important to being successful. The process of things that you do to pay attention to detail, play with discipline, do the little things correctly, all of a sudden don’t seem as important and you don’t practice as well, you don’t prepare as well, you don’t pay attention to these things, and all of a sudden, it starts to show up in your play.”
Following the 2009 national championship, the Tide sort of fell on their face in 2010. That disappointment led to back to back titles in the 2011 and 2012 seasons. Will the 2013 season and it’s late season failures propel this 2014 squad to go back to business as usual and dominate?
That is the $64 question not only from the fans, but the coaching staff as well. Does this team buy back in to the “Process” and work every day, every practice and every play to be the best? Only time will tell.
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