Alabama Football: Nick Saban's Biggest Challenges for Crimson Tide in 2014
It’s not easy being Nick Saban.
He led all coaches with four national championships during the BCS era, three at the University of Alabama. When his team loses two games, the whole offseason turns into “What’s wrong?”, with critics claiming that there are cracks in the dynasty even when it was just one play short of a perfect regular season.
It’s pretty much the same as what was said after the 2010 season, when Alabama, perhaps the victim of its own success, lost three games and for the only time since 2007 didn’t play in a BCS bowl. The Crimson Tide responded by winning the next two crystal footballs.
Alas, it’s a new season, which brings new challenges, and the coach is making sure that his talented team is hearing every criticism and doubt. He knows better than anyone that such negative talk can only spur the Crimson Tide.
Although the goal remains the same, to continue winning championships, here are 10 of those challenges for the 2014 season:
1. Beat Auburn
Maybe the easiest motivation in Crimson Tide history will be to show the players the final play from last year’s game at Auburn, followed by fans rushing the field and the Tigers claiming to be a “Team of Destiny.”
Alabama missed field goals of 33, 44, 44 and 57 yards, and Auburn ran for 296 yards en route to the 34-28 victory decided on the 100-plus yard return off a missed field goal.
"Their running game has had a lot of success against everybody all year long," Nick Saban said at the time. "They are a very difficult offense to defend. It takes a lot of discipline."
Alabama will certainly be looking forward to hosting Auburn on Nov. 29.
2. Reclaim Swagger
Alabama has been at its best under Nick Saban when it dictates the tempo and slowly squeezes other teams into oblivion. Often that occurs in the first half, but it failed to do so in the final two games of 2013, at Auburn and against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.
Look for Alabama to quickly try to re-establish itself as the team that no one wants to face.
“I thought we lost our identity as a team at the end of the season,” Nick Saban said. “You have to start all over to re-establish it. It’s not easy. It’s difficult. It’s tough. To have the psychological toughness to sustain the season to play the kind of football that we’ve won playing around here, you have to pound. You have to pound your hand in the sand until it’s tough enough to go through it.
“I don’t know that we ever paid that price last year, and I think it’s important that our players understand why we do the things we do so they can make it through the season and play the kind of football that we want to play.”
3. Find the Next Starting Quarterback
Fans are focused on transfer Jacob Coker, who finally arrived this month after graduating from Florida State and still has two years of eligibility remaining, but Nick Saban has made it clear that the quarterback competition is only getting started.
The three contenders are Coker, senior Blake Sims and redshirt freshman Cooper Bateman. Sims primarily led the offense throughout the spring.
“Success is defined by consistency in performance, so who can be the most consistent guy doing his job well at that position?” Saban said. “That’s a critical position because the guy distributes the ball to someone on every down, whether he hands it to them, throws it to them.
“The choices and decisions that they have to make goes a long way in how effective and efficient your offense runs. So which guys can develop into guys that can actually execute and do that on the most consistent basis? It’s all about playing winning football, and that’s something you can evaluate in practice every day.”
The last time Alabama had a quarterback competition was 2011, and it wasn’t settled until a couple of games into the regular season.
4. Dominate Again Defensively
Alabama finished fifth nationally in total defense last season, giving up an average of 286.5 yards per game, and was fourth in scoring defense at 13.9 points.
Not only were both up from the previous year, 250.7 and 10.9 respectively, in 2011 the Crimson Tide yielded just 183.6 yards and 8.2 points.
Posting similar numbers won’t be easy, but that’s the goal as Alabama judges itself against other Crimson Tide defenses.
“Guys are just a lot more hungry,” senior linebacker Trey DePriest said. “We didn’t finish the season like we wanted to. Guys knew that and they just took a different approach to it and are trying to get back to the standard to how we do stuff.”
5. Run, Run and Then Run Some More
Although the hiring of offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has drawn both a lot of attention and speculation about what kind of changes he might make to the passing game, Nick Saban always pushes for a balanced offense.
The key to that, of course, is being able to run the ball. While Alabama doesn’t have three All-Americans on the offensive line like it did a couple of years ago, the Crimson Tide will be bigger up front this fall.
Meanwhile, Alabama has the strong backfield trio of T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake, with Jalston Fowler lining up at both fullback and as a receiving tight end.
“I feel like we're being used more,” Henry said this spring. “We're getting out running more routes, being one-on-one with the linebackers. Just getting out and being receiver-type running backs. I think it brings more to the offense because we're doing more than just running the ball.”
6. Stay Healthy
Even through Alabama has the market cornered on signing top recruits, it’s not like Nick Saban has more roster space than other coaches. On the other end of that, the Crimson Tide have had 25 players drafted over the last three years, many of whom left the Capstone with eligibility remaining.
Nevertheless, like every other team, Alabama must avoid key injuries, because the depth chart is essentially two deep plus inexperienced players.
One position area where the coaches especially want to rotate a lot this season is the defensive line. Alabama appears to have enough run-stuffers and pass-rushers to be able to gear game plans and attack different offenses different ways.
“[We’re] probably a little bit more athletic up front on defense than maybe we were a year ago, that may be helpful on some of these spread teams that we have to play if we can stay healthy,” Saban said.
7. Kill Concerns About Spread/No-Huddle Offenses
Maybe it’s because nothing else has especially worked, or that most teams can’t match up physically, but there’s a growing belief that Alabama is especially susceptible to spread/no-huddle offenses.
Actually, strong quarterback play has more often than not been the best way to top Alabama’s defense, and last year the Crimson Tide was extremely vulnerable at the cornerback position.
Nevertheless, defensive players said the team worked hard on countering such offenses during spring practices, and two high-profile visitors to Tuscaloosa this offseason were Peyton Manning and Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase.
"Since they're a no-huddle team, we had a lot of questions for them, in terms of what gives them problems and what defensive teams do that give them problems," Saban said. "That was a mutual benefit. I know it was a benefit to us. I hope it was a benefit to them as well."
8. Keep Everyone Involved
There’s only one football and lots of playmakers on the Crimson Tide offense, which means keeping everyone happy may not be easy.
The five running backs who took the most handoffs last season are all returning, as are 11 of the 13 players who caught more than one pass.
“Of course it was frustrating,” sophomore wide receiver Chris Black said about only having eight receptions in 2013. “The coaches understood. It was a depth thing. It wasn’t anything I took personally. I still came out and did what I had to do every day in practice.”
New offensive coordinator Lee Kiffin has a reputation for getting the ball to a key player or two and keep going to them until the defense forces something else, but he will have talented options at the running back, tight end and wide receiver positions.
“Nothing comes easy,” Black added. We work here. Everyone is top of the line when it comes to talent. It’s one of those places you have to work.”
9. Coaching Continuity
After a number of offseason moves, Nick Saban has nearly the exact same coaching staff as when he was first hired in 2007.
With Bo Davis returning to coach the defensive linemen and Kevin Steele again handling the interior linebackers, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart has slid back to coach the safeties as a position group during practices next to Saban with the cornerbacks.
Among the exceptions are Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, with Mario Cristobal overseeing the offensive line. They’re also two of the five Alabama coaches who have head-coaching experience, joining Steele, special teams and tight ends coach Bobby Williams and Saban.
“We talk about team recruiting,” Saban said on national signing day. “We want a lot of people involved in recruiting. I think the players don’t choose the University of Alabama because of one person, not one coach, not one assistant coach, not me. I think it’s all about the team of things we have here that help them be successful and the team of people, I should say, that helps them be successful.”
Keeping a coaching staff as intact as possible is an obvious plus for Saban, who regularly has to hire replacements, but so is familiarity.
10. Qualify for Inaugural Playoff
It’s the first year of the College Football Playoff, with four teams to be selected by a high-profile committee. The semifinals will be played at the Rose Bowl and the Sugar Bowl, both on Jan. 1, 2015, with the winners meeting at A&T&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Jan. 12.
Even though it won't go into the season ranked No. 1, Alabama is already being plugged as a favorite to receive a tournament invitation.
It’s a new challenge for a new era of college football.
Christopher Walsh is the lead Alabama football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.