Despite failing to reach the BCS title game, Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide have a chance to reach the 12-win mark for the third consecutive season.
Only at a place such as Alabama would an 11-1 regular season and a No. 3 ranking at season’s end be viewed as a disappointment.
While that theory seems hard to digest for most fan bases across the country, the standard in Tuscaloosa is understandably high for a program that has captured three of the last four BCS national titles.
Nick Saban and the Tide still have the chance to finish with at least 12 wins for the third consecutive season. As ESPN's Brett McMurphy has reported via Twitter, the Tide will have to knock off Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2. to accomplish that feat.
What is the state of the Alabama program heading into 2014?
After being billed as the preseason No. 1 team in the country, Alabama had its struggles during the first few games of the season.
In a 35-10 season-opening win over Virginia Tech, the Tide’s new-look offensive line struggled while the defense and special teams scored three of the team’s five touchdowns.
Two weeks later in the much hyped showdown at Texas A&M, AJ McCarron led the Tide to a 49-42 shootout win despite the defense allowing Johnny Manziel and the Aggies to rack up an astounding 628 yards of total offense.
The Tide managed to turn things around and look like a dominant team in a five-game stretch beginning in October and culminating with a 38-17 win over LSU.
However, the 34-28 loss at archrival Auburn in the season finale put the Tide’s dreams of a three-peat on ice.
Despite an 11-1 campaign, the gut-wrenching manner in which the Tide lost overshadows a strong body of work in the 2013-14 season. With the Tide headed to the Sugar Bowl to face Oklahoma, a third consecutive BCS bowl win would give them a strong boost heading into 2014.
Despite losing a handful of decorated players who have been pillars of the Tide’s dynasty, Saban will return a host of players who have gained valuable experience this season.
The offense returns seven starters, including standout skill players such as running back T.J. Yeldon and receiver Amari Cooper. Assuming star left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio opts to leave for the NFL, the offensive line will still return three starters.
Defensively, although the Tide could potentially lose several starters to the NFL draft, there’s plenty of young talent waiting in the wings.
Safety Landon Collins, linebacker Denzel Devall and defensive lineman A’Shawn Robinson are proven commodities for Saban and Kirby Smart to build around.
Emerging talents such as linebacker Jonathan Allen and corner Eddie Jackson lead the next batch of studs who are ready to breakout after a season of getting acclimated to the rigors of playing in the SEC.
Alabama’s 2014 class, which currently has 24 commitments, is ranked as the nation’s top-rated recruiting class, according to 247 Sports. Let’s take a look at three players who Saban is hoping will put the icing on another No. 1 class when national signing day concludes.
Humphrey is the nation’s top corner and a Tide legacy to boot. His father, Bobby Humphrey, was an All-American running back at Alabama from 1985-88.
If there’s one position that Alabama needs to land an impact player, it’s at the corner position. Former Tide pledge Stephen Roberts flipped to Auburn, and lone current commit Kalvaraz Bessent is also entertaining other schools.
With the uncertainty at corner, Humphrey is arguably the biggest domino left on the board for Saban.
The trenches have been a focus in the 2014 class, with Alabama having six commitments on the offensive line and four on the defensive line.
Despite the heavy numbers already on board along the lines, the Tide aren’t done chasing difference makers who could change the game up front.
Matt Elam, a 6’5”, 350-pound 5-star defensive tackle, is a potentially elite nose guard who would fit perfectly in the middle of Saban’s 3-4 scheme.
Despite signing four running backs in its 2013 class, Alabama remains in the hunt for the nation’s premier rusher in 2014—5-star Louisiana-native Leonard Fournette.
While LSU will fight tooth and nail to keep the talented 6’2”, 225-pounder home, Alabama has already had success pulling studs from the Pelican State, with four commitments from Louisiana already headed to the Capstone.
The Tigers have long been considered the favored to land Fournette, but Saban has the Tide poised to be in good position for him until he decides.
Biggest Storyline: Can the Tide Land its 4th straight No. 1 class?
Absolutely. Alabama is already positioned to take home another recruiting crown. With several big names left on the board, Saban is sure to close strong and add to what is already a banner crop of the nation’s best prep stars.
The return Amari Cooper and DeAndrew White will bolster the receiver unit, but the biggest weapon for whoever will replace AJ McCarron could be tight end O.J. Howard.
The dynamic 6’6”, 237-pounder had a solid debut season, catching 14 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns.
Howard is a mismatch waiting to happen against safeties or linebackers, and his role in opening up the middle of the field should increase next season.
One of the more intriguing returning players at corner is Eddie Jackson.
After a strong debut in a surprise start against Ole Miss, Jackson’s playing time decreased in what Saban described as typical freshman inconsistency, according to Andrew Gribble of AL.com.
Despite his ups and downs, Jackson remains a big part of the Tide’s future in the secondary. With no players returning who are guaranteed to start, Jackson has a huge opportunity to grab a starting spot if he improves his focus and intensity in the offseason.
One of the final pledges of the Tide’s 2013 class, Texas native and defensive lineman A’Shawn Robinson enjoyed a strong freshman season.
The 6’4”, 320-pounder led the Tide in sacks with 5.5 and finished 36 tackles and five quarterback hurries. Expect Robinson to be a versatile piece who can line up at end or at nose guard and wreak havoc on the defensive line for at least the next two seasons.
Given his level of success at Alabama, head coach Nick Saban's name is always mentioned when high profile jobs open up.
With the uncertainty surrounding Mack Brown at Texas, Saban has reiterated his desire to stay in Tuscaloosa on numerous occasions this season. His wife even got into the act, as Sam Cooper of Yahoo! Sports detailed recently.
While Saban isn't going anywhere, Alabama’s staff has dealt with attrition due in part to the success the Tide has sustained on the field.
Prior to coming to Alabama to serve as the Tide’s offensive coordinator, Doug Nussmeier held the same post at Washington. The Huskies interviewed him in their search to replace Steve Sarkisian, according to Andrew Gribble of AL.com. However, the Huskies ultimately tabbed former Boise State head coach Chris Petersen to that post.
Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart is another assistant who has been a hot name in recent years. However, as he’s proven in the past, it will take the right opportunity for him to seriously entertain the thought of leaving Tuscaloosa.
Saban has always had a knack for surrounding himself with bright coaching minds who excel on the field and on the recruiting trail.
Conversely, spots on his coaching staff are coveted positions given the success of numerous coaches who have spent time under Saban and left for promotions. With that said, there aren’t any coaches on the Tide’s staff on the proverbial hot seat.
While Alabama may not begin 2014 as the consensus favorite to win the national title as they were heading into this season, Saban’s roster will still be as deep and talented as any in the entire country.
The biggest questions for the Tide are finding a successor to McCarron at quarterback and filling holes on defense that could be affected by early departures to the NFL.
Still, the Tide will field All-American talents such as receiver Amari Cooper, running back T.J. Yeldon and safety Landon Collins. Additional help is on the way courtesy of another top-ranked recruiting class.
It’s important to note that the Tide won national titles in the last two seasons with a new starting quarterback, and Saban has experience in reloading year-after-year with respect to losing talent to the NFL draft.
Given the sour ending to the 2013-14 season, the Tide will enter next season motivated to reclaim their position as the most dominant program in the country.