Alabama football will open the 2015 season with the fourth toughest schedule in the nation, according to college football writer Phil Steele. Its head coach Nick Saban and his staff look to accomplish a national championship, after falling short in the last two seasons.
The Crimson Tide lost some talent to the National Football League, but it returns much experience and young players to the fold. Yours truly of Touchdown Alabama Magazine has compiled a list of the five toughest teams that Alabama will face this fall.
5. Tennessee Volunteers
Head coach: Butch Jones
2014 record: 7-6, (3-5 in SEC play)
Returning starters (OFF): QB Joshua Dobbs, RB Jalen Hurd, WRs Jason Croom, Alton “Pig” Howard, Marquez North, Von Pearson and Josh Smith
Returning starters (DEF): DEs Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt, ILB Kenny Bynum and CB Cameron Sutton
Summary: Tennessee is a program on the rise, as Butch Jones enters his third season at head coach. Competitive losses against Georgia (35-32), Florida (10-9) and Missouri (29-21) caused the Volunteers to finish at 7-6 in 2014. Tennessee welcomed Alabama to Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn., last season and gave the Crimson Tide a quality game.
Alabama captured a 20-0 lead in the first quarter, but the Volunteers’ defense stopped the bleeding for much of the contest. Tennessee’s offense scored 10 points in the second quarter, and outscored Alabama 10-7 in the second half. Alabama’s Blake Sims and Amari Cooper proved to be too much for Tennessee’s secondary. Cooper totaled nine catches for 224 yards and two touchdowns. The Tide’s defense tightend up, and helped Alabama secure a 34-20 victory. Tennessee will travel to Bryant-Denny Stadium in 2015. It looks to capture its first win against Alabama since 2006.
4. Arkansas Razorbacks
Head coach: Bret Bielema
2014 record: 7-6, (2-6 in SEC play)
Returning starters (OFF): QB Brandon Allen, RBs Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, WRs Jared Collins, Keon Hatcher and Cody Hollister, TE Hunter Henry
Returning starters (DEF): DL Taiwan Johnson, JaMichael Winston and Brandon Lewis, LB Brook Ellis and Nicholas Thomas-Smith, DB Davyon McKinney, Rohan Gaines and D.J. Dean
Summary: Arkansas accomplished two conference victories (LSU and Ole Miss), after going winless in the SEC last season. The Razorbacks capped off a 7-win season by defeating Texas in the 2014 AdvoCare Texas Bowl 31-7. Arkansas was one of few teams that challenged Alabama last season. Its defense held the Crimson Tide’s running backs to 66 rushing yards. Blake Sims had a tough time completing passes, and Amari Cooper was limited to 22 yards on two receptions. Alabama’s defense held Arkansas to 89 rushing yards, and forced three turnovers.
The Crimson Tide escaped Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville, Ark., with a 14-13 win, but the Hogs looks for vengeance in 2015. Alabama has scheduled Arkansas as its homecoming matchup. The Razorbacks are another SEC program on the rise. Its matchup with Alabama will be interesting.
3. Georgia Bulldogs
Head coach: Mark Richt
2014 record: 10-3, (6-2 in SEC play)
Returning starters (OFF): RBs Nick Chubb, Keith Marshall, Sony Michel and Brendan Douglas, WRs, Malcolm Mitchell, Justin Scott-Wesley, Isaiah McKenzie and Reggie Davis
Returning starters (DEF): DEs Sterling Bailey, Josh Dawson and James DeLoach, LBs Reginald Carter, Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins, CBs Devin Bowman and Kennar Daniels-Johnson, S Quincy Mauger
Summary: True freshman running back Nick Chubb put in a stellar season in 2014. He totaled 1,547 yards with 14 touchdowns on 219 carries. Georgia loses receivers Michael Bennett and Chris Conley to the National Football League, but it returns Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley. Mitchell caught 31 passes for 248 yards and three touchdowns.
Quarterback Hutson Mason completed 67.9 percent of passes and totaled 2,168 yards with 21 touchdowns last season. Sophomore Brice Ramsey and freshman Jacob Parker are the two gunslingers fighting for the starting job in the fall. 2008 was the last time Alabama faced Georgia in the regular season. The Crimson Tide pulled out a 41-30 victory in Athens, Ga. This year’s meeting inside Samford Stadium will be the first true road test for Alabama.
2. Mississippi State Bulldogs
Head coach: Dan Mullen
2014 record: 10-3, (6-2 in SEC play)
Returning starters (OFF): QB Dak Prescott, RBs Ashton Shumpert and Brandon Holloway, WRs, De’Runnya Wilson, Fred Brown, Fred Ross, Joe Morrow and Gabe Miles
Returning starters (DEF): DLs Chris Jones, Ryan Brown, Nelson Adams and Nick James, LBs Richie Brown, Beniquez Brown and Zach Jackson, DBs Will Redmond, Taveze Calhoun, Kivon Coleman, Deontay Evans and Kendrick Market
Summary: Junior quarterback Dak Prescott looks to build off a productive sophomore season in 2014. He threw for 3,449 yards with 27 touchdowns and 11 interceptions on a 61.6 percent completion rating. Prescott was deadly on the ground, totaling 1,203 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Mississippi State loses running back Josh Robinson, but returns Brandon Holloway and Ashton Shumpert. Prescott’s primary weapon De’Runnya Wilson returns this fall. Wilson grabbed 47 passes for 680 yards with nine touchdowns. Fred Ross finished second on the team in yards (489) and touchdowns (5). Defensively, Mississippi State will be without defensive back Jamerson Love, linebacker Benardrick McKinney and defensive lineman Preston Smith, but it returns Chris Jones, Richie Brown, Beniquez Brown, Will Redmond and Taveze Calhoun.
Alabama’s defense set the tone in its matchup against Mississippi State last season. Its secondary forced three interceptions, and Amari Cooper ran all over the Bulldogs’ secondary. The Crimson Tide won 25-20 inside Bryant-Denny Stadium, but Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville, Miss., will be the star attraction for this year’s contest. Mississippi State seeks its first win over Alabama since 2007.
1B. LSU Tigers
Head coach: Les Miles
2014 record: LSU 8-5, (4-4 in SEC play)
LSU’s returning starters (OFF): QBs Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris, RB Leonard Fournette, WRs Malachi Dupre, Travin Dural, John Diarse and Trey Quinn
LSU returning starters (DEF): DTs Davon Godchaux and Quentin Thomas, DEs Lewis Neal and Tashawn Bower, LBs Kendell Beckwith, Deion Jones and Lamar Louis, CBs Jalen Mills and Tre’Davious White, S Rickey Jefferson and Jamal Adams
Summary: LSU was inconsistent at quarterback last season. Junior Anthony Jennings completed 48.9 percent of passes in 2014, while totaling 1,611 yards with 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Sophomore Brandon Harrison saw action in games last season. He threw for 462 yards with six touchdowns and two interceptions. Running back Leonard Fournette had a monster season as a freshman in 2014. He accounted for 1,034 yards and 10 touchdowns on 5.5 yards per carry. Wide receiver Travin Dural led LSU in receptions (37), yards (758) and touchdowns (7). Sophomore Malachi Dupre put in 14 catches for 318 yards and five touchdowns in 2014.
LSU lost a heartbreaker at home against Alabama last season. Blake Sims led a 9-play, 55-yard drive with 50 seconds left in the fourth quarter to force overtime. He returned in the overtime period and threw a touchdown pass to DeAndrew White. The Crimson Tide won 20-13 at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, La. Alabama’s meeting with LSU are always interesting.
1. Auburn Tigers
Head coach: Gus Malzahn
2014 record: 8-5, (4-4 in SEC play)
Auburn returning starters (OFF): QB Jeremy Johnson, RB Roc Thomas, WRs Marcus Davis, D’haquille Williams and Ricardo Louis
Auburn returning starters (DEF): DT Montravius Adams, DL DaVonte Lambert, Carl Lawson and Keymiya Harrell, LBs Cassanova McKinzy, Kris Frost and Justin Garrett, DBs Jonathan Jones, Joshua Holsey, Jonathan Ford and Derrick Moncrief
Summary: Auburn’s quarterback Nick Marshall improved as a passer last season. He connected on 60.8 percent of his attempts for 2,532 yards with 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Running back Cameron Artis-Payne totaled 1,608 yards and 13 touchdowns on 5.3 yards per carry. D’haquille Williams and Sammie Coates led Auburn’s receiving corps in 2014.
Williams caught 45 passes for 730 yards and five touchdowns. Coates chimed in with 34 receptions for 741 yards and four scores. The Tigers lose Marshall, Artis-Payne and Coates, but it returns Williams. Auburn returns a solid core group of players defensively, despite losing Angelo Blackson, Gabe Wright and Jonathon Mincy.
The 79th Iron Bowl meeting between Alabama and Auburn was one for the ages. Nick Marshall carved up Alabama’s secondary for 456 yards and a touchdown. Blake Sims threw three first half interceptions, but responded with toughness in the second half. He totaled four touchdowns in the second half, including two touchdown passes to Amari Cooper. Alabama’s defense held Cameron Artis-Payne to 77 rushing yards. Marshall was limited to 3.8 yards per carry.
The Crimson Tide got it done inside Bryant-Denny Stadium by a score of 55-44. The venue shifts to Jordan-Hare Stadium this fall. Alabama fans still remember the “kick six” that occurred in 2013. Alabama’s head coach Nick Saban and company look to prevent that from happening again.
Dark horse teams: Wisconsin, Ole Miss, Texas A&M