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Alabama Football: A Season to Remember

Ohio State is on cloud nine. Head coach Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes are one win away from a national championship. Alabama looked on as Ohio State’s players embraced its championship gear and hoisted a Sugar Bowl trophy. The Crimson Tide’s players were disgusted, seniors cried, Alabama’s coaching staff shook its head, yet Nick Saban remains confident.

Alabama isn’t wearing T-shirts or a hat. Not an inch of crimson and white confetti fell from above, but coach Saban still smiles. Other programs would find joy in a 12-2 season; however, citizens of Tuscaloosa crave championships, rings and postseason success.

“I am very proud of this team,” Alabama’s head coach Nick Saban said. “They kept Alabama in the forefront of college football all year long.”

Talent and experience molded Alabama’s previous teams. Resiliency, toughness and chemistry were its foundation in 2014. It was a program that lost AJ McCarron, Kevin Norwood, CJ Mosley, Ha’Sean “Ha Ha” Clinton-Dix, Vinnie Sunseri and others in the 2014 NFL Draft.

Sports writers across the nation said it couldn’t be done. Many of them had Alabama listed as a four or five-loss team. Its 23-17 loss to Ole Miss didn’t make matters better.  Alabama’s lone regular season blemish added more fuel to the fire. ESPN’s Colin Cowherd said Alabama’s reign was over. SEC Network’s Marcus Spears said no one was afraid of Alabama anymore.

This team channeled its energy into getting better. Alabama won its next eight games, including two in dramatic fashion. It stuck a dagger in LSU at Tiger Stadium, and won a thrilling Iron Bowl against Auburn. 2013 had the bells and whistles, but no conference title to show for it. This year’s team gave the program its 24th Southeastern Conference championship. It was a record-setting affair, and Alabama defeated Missouri 42-13 in Atlanta.

2014 was supposed to be a rebuilding season. The hiring of Lane Kiffin started as a double-edged sword. It was a mystery deciding a starting quarterback. People wondered who would step up at the linebacker position. Clinton-Dix and Sunseri were sole possessions of the National Football League. It was a preconceived thought that Alabama’s secondary would be the worst in college football. Saban and company evaluated all questions. They examined each issue, and despite some inconsistencies, Alabama located individuals who would emerge as leaders.

 

OC Lane Kiffin: Sparking an offense

His play calling was lackluster against Ohio State, but Alabama wouldn’t have been in the College Football Playoff without Lane Kiffin. His ability to get playmakers the ball in space created balance for Alabama’s offense. Kiffin is Alabama’s second offensive coordinator (Doug Nussmeier, first) to record 30+ points and 400+ yards of offense in his first season under Saban.

He stands as Alabama’s third offensive coordinator (Jim McElwain, Doug Nussmeier) to put up 30+ points and 300+ yards in the same time period. Kiffin guided Alabama to 36.9 points and 484.5 yards per game in 2014. The Crimson Tide scored at least 30 points in 10 games. Its offense exploded for 50+ points against Southern Mississippi (52), Texas A&M (59) and Auburn (55). Kiffin will get better as a play caller, but he exceeded expectations in year one with Alabama.

Alabama’s offensive production since 2000
Year Offensive coordinator Yards Points
2000 Les Koenning 309.4 20.7
2001 Les Koenning 409.4 26.5
2002 Les Koenning 403.5 28.2
2003 Dave Radar 350.5 25.5
2004 Dave Radar 326.7 24.6
2005 Dave Radar 358.9 21.6
2006 Dave Radar 335.9 22.9
2007 Major Applewhite 373.8 27.1
2008 Jim McElwain 355.8 30.1
2009 Jim McElwain 403.0 32.1
2010 Jim McElwain 444.1 35.7
2011 Jim McElwain 429.6 34.8
2012 Doug Nussemeier 445.5 38.7
2013 Doug Nussmeier 454.1 38.2
2014 Lane Kiffin 484.5 36.9

 

WR Amari Cooper: Record-setting season

Alabama’s junior receiver Amari Cooper may very well enter the 2015 NFL Draft. He’s had a stellar season, in which he averaged at least eight receptions in 12 games. Kiffin used Cooper in every way imaginable, and he responded with huge plays. Cooper totaled three 200+ yard games against Florida (201), Tennessee (224) and Auburn (224).

He set an SEC title game record against Missouri, accounting for 12 receptions. Cooper ended 2014 with 124 catches for 1,727 yards and 16 touchdowns. He stands as Alabama’s all-time leading receiver, posting 228 catches for 3,463 yards and 31 touchdowns in his career. Cooper received much praise this season. He was recognized as the SEC’s Offensive Player of the Year. Cooper was listed as an All-American on numerous sports news outlets.

He became Alabama’s first Fred Biletnikoff Award winner, and Kiffin’s second receiver to hoist the trophy (Marqise Lee, Southern California in 2012). Cooper was Alabama’s fourth player (AJ McCarron, Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson) to be recognized as a Heisman finalist. He finished third, behind Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota.

Cooper took on a leadership role this season. He helped develop confidence in senior quarterback, Blake Sims. Cooper worked with Sims in practice and became his dependable target on game days. He was a game changer as a primary receiver and a decoy. Cooper opened up DeAndrew White and Christion Jones. White caught 40 passes for 504 yards and four touchdowns. Jones chimed in with 19 catches for 264 yards and a score this season. White ends his career, totaling 94 catches for 1,294 yards and 12 touchdowns. Jones finishes with 85 receptions for 1,030 yards and 7 scores.

Amari Cooper: One of the Best
Year Receptions Yards Touchdowns
2012 59 1,000 11
2013 45 736 4
2014 124 1,727 16

 

RBs T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry: A Balanced Attack

It wasn’t a traditional Alabama run game, but Kiffin brought it balance. Junior running back T.J. Yeldon is a warrior. He battled injuries throughout the season, yet continued to play. 123 rushing yards would be good for most back, but it didn’t ease Yeldon’s pain against Ole Miss.

Saban and company understood Yeldon as a quiet storm. A man of few words, Yeldon leads by example. No one anticipated the alarm that would go off in Alabama’s locker room on Oct. 4, 2014, no one but Yeldon. He slammed his helmet in disgust, and opened his mouth to provide motivation. Yeldon’s words were heart felt. The message was clear.

“We aren’t going out like this,” Yeldon said after Alabama’s 23-17 loss to Ole Miss. “Not letting everyone be right about us. From this point on nobody is getting by us. It’s over for them.”

It was a combination of an Ole Miss loss and Kenyan Drake’s injury that flipped a switch in Yeldon. He began to run with a purpose, and not let injuries keep him off the field. Derrick Henry was a freshman phenomenon in 2013. He was a force to be reckoned with in 2014.

Yeldon and Henry tore through the SEC. Yeldon would pound defenses early, while Henry would wear opposition down late in games. West Virginia was the lone matchup were both backs totaled 100 yards rushing, but Henry and Yeldon were productive throughout the season. Yeldon registered four 100-yard rushing performances (West Virginia, Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Auburn). Henry reached the century mark against West Virginia, Florida and Ohio State.

It was a third Sugar Bowl loss, but a second one in which fans saw the talent of Henry. He gashed Ohio State’s defense in the first quarter. Henry recorded 149 total yards (95 rushing, 54 receiving) and a touchdown. Yeldon didn’t play much, but he did put in a rushing touchdown in the second quarter. Both backs came so close to 1,000 yards. Henry ended 2014 with 990 yards. Yeldon finished with 979 yards. Both totaled 11 touchdowns and averaged over five yards per carry. Yeldon will more than likely enter the 2015 NFL Draft. If he declares, Yeldon would finish his career at Alabama with 3,322 rushing yards and 37 touchdowns.

Alabama’s offensive line: Finesse, but productive

Alabama lost a lot of talented offensive linemen to the National Football League, including Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack, DJ Fluker and Anthony Steen. Offensive line coach Mario Cristobal returned Austin Shepherd, Arie Kouandjio and Ryan Kelly to the stable. All three players displayed leadership and helped Alabama total 484.5 yards per game.

True freshman Cam Robinson exceeded all expectations this season. He held his own at left tackle, and showed great poise against some of the best pass rushers in the SEC. Robinson blocked well and excelled in pass protection. Alabama’s offensive line witnessed a rushing attack that averaged 209.5 yards per game. It helped a passing game accomplish 281.0 yards per contest.

Alabama’s defense: Spotty, but not dreadful

Alabama’s defense had its issues, but it made plays this season. It accounted for more sacks in 2014 (32) than it did in 2013 (22). Senior linebacker Xzavier Dickson had a bounce back season. He led the team in tackles for loss (12.5) and sacks (9.0). Reggie Ragland filled in admirably for CJ Mosley at linebacker. He put in 95 stops, including 10.5 tackles for loss. Ragland forced three fumbles and had three pass breakups. Senior linebacker Trey DePriest played his heart out. He totaled 88 tackles, three pass breakups, a forced fumble and a safety. Ryan Anderson emerged as an unsung hero. He had 25 tackles (8.0 tackles for loss) and three sacks.

Jarran Reed was crucial on the defensive line. He accounted for 55 stops and five pass breakups. D.J. Pettway was a member of Alabama’s defense in 2012. Off the field issues dismissed him from the program in 2013. Pettway pleaded for a second chance. Saban rewarded him with it, and Pettway responded. He had 23 tackles, two sacks, three pass breakups and five quarterback hurries. Jonathan Allen and A’Shawn Robinson anchored a defensive line as sophomores. Robinson collected 49 tackles. Allen finished second on the team in sacks (5.5).

Safety Landon Collins was a playmaker in 2013. He was a leader in 2014. Collins demonstrated sound on ball skill, but excelled in run support. He led the team with 103 tackles and tied for first  in interceptions (3). Collins taught both Geno Smith and Cyrus Jones. Smith suffered a sophomore slump in 2013, but was huge this season. He collected 56 tackles. Jones improved a lot in 2014, and became a consistent coverage cornerback. He led the team in pass breakups (13).

Sophomore cornerback Eddie Jackson made some mistakes, but one can’t question his toughness. Jackson suffered a knee injury in the spring of 2014. His timetable to return would have been late -September to early-October. Jackson got in a training room and rehabbed his way back. He was ready to play by Alabama’s season opener against West Virginia, but Saban didn’t put Jackson in until a matchup against Florida Atlantic. He recorded four tackles and a forced fumble against the Owls. Jackson was clutch in Alabama’s 14-13 victory over Arkansas. He accounted for six tackles and a sack. Jackson had a huge interception in Alabama’s 20-13 overtime victory against LSU. He finished the season with 41 tackles and six pass breakups.

Even the play of Nick Perry improved in 2014. The fifth-year senior unarguably had the best year of his career. Perry finished fourth on the team in tackles (80) with two interceptions and six pass breakups. He did a great job in run support, and displayed exceptional on ball skills.

Punter JK Scott: An unexpected hero

JK Scott was one freshman that made an immediate impact. His first collegiate punt traveled 62 yards against West Virginia. P.J. Fitzgerald and Cody Mandell both averaged at little over 30 yards per punt as freshmen. Scott exceeded both of them, netting an average of 48.0 yards per kick. He showed unbelievable focus, and kept Alabama in numerous games.

Scott dropped 33 of his 55 punts inside an opponent’s 20-yard line. He had 23 kicks in excess of 50+ yards. Scott’s finest performances came against West Virginia, Ole Miss, Arkansas, LSU, Mississippi State and Ohio State. He was named an All-American on many news outlets, and finished as a finalist for the Ray Guy Award.

“The guy [Scott] has done a phenomenal job, especially thinking that he’s just a freshman,” Saban said to Tuscaloosa News. “You worry about guys like that being able to stay focused on what they need to do to be consistent, which he has done a really, really good job of. He has flipped the field position for us a bunch this year.”

QB Blake Sims: An inspiration

“Daddy did well.” Three small words, but it meant everything to Blake Sims. He along with CBS’s sideline reporter, Allie LaForce witnessed Kyla Sims praise her father on national television. For each touchdown Sims scored, Kyla was there with a smile and advice. Blake Sims set an SEC title game record against Missouri, completing 85.2 percent of his passes. The cameras panned to Kyla in the audience. A young child with a pink shirt, a red “ROLL TIDE” poster and an Alabama tattoo on her cheek did nothing but smile. Kyla loved her dad, and Alabama fans grew to love Blake Sims in 2014.

Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken, is a guideline for most athletes. Some will admit to not reading it, but still will coin it as an aspect that’s helped them achieve success. Whether Sims read the work or not is none of our business, but one can see the qualities of the poem in him.

Sims was an electrifying athlete in high school (Gainesville, Ga.), but he constantly had to prove himself at Alabama. Sims led the Crimson Tide to the inaugural College Football Playoff, but he almost became the quarterback of a hated rival. Lane Kiffin highly recruited Sims to Tennessee in 2009. He was supposed to be singing praises about Rocky Top. Kiffin’s sudden leave for Southern California flipped Sims’s commitment to Alabama.

His career began as a running back, but Sims’s leadership capabilities as a quarterback came full surface in 2014. Florida State transfer Jake Coker was an obsession. He was an object of conversation throughout the offseason. Sims stayed focused. He improved as a passer and won the job in Alabama’s final scrimmage in August. He played well against West Virginia, Florida Atlantic and Southern Mississippi, but prime time saw how good he was against Florida.

CBS’s golden boys, Verne Lundquist and Gary Danielson couldn’t stop talking about Sims. Bryant-Denny Stadium erupted, and jaws dropped in sheer amazement. Sims tossed for 445 yards and four touchdowns against Florida. He executed well against Texas A&M and Tennessee, yet some fans still weren’t sold on Sims.

Prime time television saw Sims against Florida. Critics and sports writers witnessed him take the field against LSU on Nov. 8, 2014. It wasn’t his best game, completing 20 of 45 pass attempts, but it didn’t matter. Sims engineered a drive in the fourth quarter that placed Alabama in the playoff picture. He led the team on a 9-play, 55-yard drive with 50 seconds left in regulation. The drive ended on a game-tying, 27-yard field from Adam Griffith. Sims returned in overtime with a game-winning, 6-yard touchdown pass to DeAndrew White. Alabama beat LSU 20-13.

Sims led game-saving drives against Mississippi State and Missouri, but the 79th Iron Bowl would see another chapter in his toughness. Sims didn’t have a great first half. Two early interceptions had Alabama trailing Auburn 26-21 at halftime. Sims returned with resiliency in the second half. He totaled four touchdowns (one rushing), including two touchdown passes to Amari Cooper. Alabama defeated Auburn 55-44.

The 2014 SEC Championship Game showed another side of Sims’s toughness. Sims took a shot in the head from Missouri’s Shane Ray in the second quarter. He stood in the pocket, took the punishment and delivered a 58-yard strike to DeAndrew White for a touchdown. Sims finished the game with 262 passing yards and two touchdowns. He became Alabama’s single-season passer leader in the contest. Sims had 3,250 passing yards. He was awarded as the most valuable player for his efforts against Missouri. Alabama notched its 24th conference title, winning 42-13.

The 2015 Sugar Bowl didn’t go the way Sims planned, but he made a believer out of so many people this season. Numerous sports writers said Alabama couldn’t win with Sims. He guided the team to a 12-win season, an SEC title and a No.1 overall ranking in the College Football Playoff. He was scrutinized in his lack of a passing paralysis. Sims answered all critics by putting up huge numbers through the air. He completed 64.5 percent of his passes for 3,487 yards, 35 total touchdowns (28 passing, 7 rushing) and 10 interceptions.

Sims saw many quarterbacks transfer away. He stayed in line, and rewarded Alabama with a productive season. His perseverance won him the team’s most inspiring athlete award during Alabama’s sports banquet. Coker was a huge name, but Alabama doesn’t have a productive season without No.6 in crimson and white. Sims’s efforts have earned him an invitation to the 2015 Reese’s Senior Bowl. He has an opportunity to strengthen his case for an NFL career.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a player go through what Blake has gone through for four years and not do anything to help a team,” Saban in Alabama’s victory over Missouri. “He’s played on the scout team many times as a backup quarterback and never complained about it. He has done a phenomenal job all year long. As a coach you love to see guys that always persevere and then have success.”

HC Nick Saban: Best coaching job

Coach Saban has had both glamorous and defensive minded Alabama teams (2009-12). 2014 was Saban’s resilient team. It accomplished a lot, despite a lack of talent in the secondary. Saban’s had success as a tight control freak, but this time results came with letting the personalities of his players pan out. Alabama was littered with talent in 2011 and 2013, but both teams failed to win a conference title. This year’s team overachieved under Saban and answered a lot of critics. Questions arise if Saban has lost his toughness and intensity as a head coach. Alabama wouldn’t have been in the conversation for a national title if he wasn’t intense.

It was started by Wallace Wade and Frank Thomas. Paul W. Bryant enhanced it, and Gene Stallings added more wood to the fire. Alabama’s football program was slipping before Saban arrived. Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchoine and Mike Shula provided a few specks of hope, but nothing consistent. Consistency is what Saban brought to Alabama since 2007. Saban has coached Alabama to seven 10+ win seasons since 2008. He’s guided the program to three conference titles and three national championships. 2014 didn’t give Saban the ending he wanted, but rest assured Alabama will be back in 2015.

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