The Macho Man doesn’t lie. The cream rises to the top, and for the last six seasons Alabama, as a program, has been the cream of the SEC. Success can be fleeting though as complacency sets in, and with so much attrition and so many question marks this is not the season for Alabama to have a haughty attitude. There are plenty of hungry teams who want to be the cream that are chomping at the bit to take the Tide down, so it will be a tough stretch for Alabama if they want to repeat as SEC champions. Are they up to the task?
The “next man up” running back roulette trend continues in Tuscaloosa in 2015. Derrick Henry is already a household name even if this will be his first season as the “feature back”, as were T.J. Yeldon, Eddie Lacy, and Trent Richardson. Henry still led the team in rushing last season, despite finishing behind Yeldon in carries. He finished a first down shy of 1,000 and found the end zone eleven times. Kenyan Drake also returns to the backfield, or potentially the slot, after missing most of last season after suffering a nasty injury against Ole Miss. True freshman Damien Harris should also factor into the mix and attempt to become the next ‘Bama back to etch his name into the minds of Bama nation even before his first start.
Strong line play has been another staple of Alabama’s offense, really since even before Saban if you exclude Chris Capps. This year’s group won’t be nearly as experienced as most of the lines Alabama had had though, although there is no significant talent drop-off if the recruiting rankings are to be believed. Cam Robinson and Ryan Kelly will be the leaders as returning starters, even if Robinson is a true sophomore. Alphonse Taylor, Dominick Jackson and redshirt freshman Ross Pierschbacher are expected to round out the starting lineup as of now, although Bradley Bozeman could potentially start at right guard over Alphonse Taylor.
How do you replace a guy like Amari Cooper? You don’t. DeAndrew White will be no easy replacement either. In fact, the leading returning receiver is TE O.J. Howard, and that isn’t because he lit the world on fire last year either, quite the opposite. Howard hauled in seventeen passes for 260 yards last season. Not terrible, but not really ideal for a leading returning receiver. He will be joined at receiver by guys trying to breakout as “the next Amari”. Potential names for that list include: Chris Black, ArDarius Stewart and Robert Foster. Stewart, in particular, has impressed this spring based on reports. True freshman Calvin Ridley also has the potential to follow in Amari and Julio Jones’s footsteps as guys who played and played well from day one.
Blake Sims will be another guy that may prove impossible to replace, and believe me that was the last thing I though I’d write going into 2014. I, like many others, never though Sims would start, but he was a pleasant surprise for the Tide. His athleticism helped him evade pass rushes and pick up first downs with his feet in ways that his predecessors could not. He also put together an impressive passing season throwing for nearly 3,500 yards and 28 touchdowns.
Until very recently, Jake Coker and David Cornwell were thought to be the two contenders to replace Sims, but Alec Morris has picked up steam apparently. Morris is a guy I have always supported and thought that if he could get a handle on the offense, then he has the arm talent to be everything Alabama needs or wants in a quarterback. Cornwell is tougher to place considering he hasn’t really played in a game since his junior year of high school, and Coker hasn’t taken a snap in a meaningful game since his senior year of high school either. Coker did play some as Sims’ backup last season, though, and on numbers alone, was not unimpressive.
Begging your pardon if this sounds too enthusiastic, but this front seven just might be good enough to evoke shades of the 2011 defense. The top five tacklers from last year’s line return including a pair of 300+ pounders in Jarran Reed and A’Shawn Robinson. Add Jonathan Allen, who had five sacks as a sophomore in 2014, and you have your starting defensive line. D.J. Pettway and Dalvin Tomlinson are more than capable rotation pieces though, and Da’Shawn Hand should see a bigger role in his sophomore campaign.
Probable first rounder Reggie Ragland returns to lead the linebacking corps after recording 69.5 tackles last season, 10.5 of which were behind the line of scrimmage. He and special teams missile Reuben Foster will man the two inside linebacker positions. Ryan Anderson returns at the “Jack” position where he will contain the edge and rush the passer. Denzel Devall rounds out the starting group at the “Sam” linebacker position. Look for backups like Rashaan Evans, Dillon Lee, Tim Williams and Shaun Dion Hamilton to be impactful in reserve roles also.
The back end loses a pair of productive safeties in Landon Collins and Nick Perry. Perry had a shaky start to his college career, but actually emerged as a pretty decent player for the Tide despite his early struggles. This defensive backfield is full of talented players and they are expected to be able to man up and take opposing team’s playmakers out of the passing game for sixty minutes. That’s not an easy task, but when it’s done well Alabama rarely loses.
Cyrus Jones returns at corner where he picked off three passes and broke up thirteen more last season. Geno Smith and Eddie Jackson are an experienced tandem at safety, and Jackson can actually play cornerback or safety. In fact, there were times when Eddie Jackson looked like the best corner on the team. Maurice Smith and Jabriel Washington will both see time at the “Star” position, and both have been pretty good when playing there. Bradley Sylve should also see time at either corner or the “Star”. There’s no shortage of guys who could start at the other corner spot. Marlon Humphrey or Tony Brown are listed by most places, but Sylve could potentially do it or one of the highly touted newcomers like Minkah Fitzpatrick, Kendall Sheffield or Shawn Burgess-Becker. My expectation is for Tony Brown to end up starting there, with Sylve and Humphrey being a close second and third.
Prediction: 10-2 Potential New Year’s Six Bowl
There is no doubt that this roster is loaded with talent, but there’s no guarantee that it translates to another title. It feels like it might be someone else’s turn this year, but that doesn’t mean the Tide will have a bad season. I know people like to say things like, “This is a down year for us.” But the truth is, it’s not. Alabama has put together an incredible string of ten or more win seasons and I see no reason why that won’t continue in 2015, but the schedule is so tough that I think repeating as West champions will be exceptionally difficult. Georgia and Tennessee make up what will probably end up being the toughest crossover schedule in the SEC West and the opener against Wisconsin won’t be a cakewalk. Beyond that, the Tide still have to play the other teams in the West including road trips to College Station, Starkville and Auburn, where memories of “The Play that Shall Not Be Named” still haunts my dreams.