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Alabama junior running back T.J. Yeldon.
Alabama Crimson Tide
Prediction: 12-1, 7-1 (1st in SEC West)
Alabama was 11-0 and appeared to be on its way to another BCS National Championship game last season before losing a 34-28 heartbreaker in the Iron Bowl at Auburn. Not only was the country surprised to see Alabama playing in the Sugar Bowl instead, former starting quarterback AJ McCarron and the Crimson Tide were dominated by Oklahoma 45-31.
Regardless of how the 2013-14 season ended, expect Nick Saban and Co. to be in the hunt for its fourth national title in six seasons.
The biggest question heading into the season will be who starts under center. McCarron, a two-time starting national championship quarterback, was drafted into the NFL and leaves the starting job wide open. Jameis Winston’s former backup Jacob Coker joined the team in the summer and will compete with senior Blake Sims, a converted running back. Coker is the favorite to win the job and will have two years of eligibility remaining.
With much of the focus on the quarterback position, first-year offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will have dynamic players in both the running and passing game. Junior All-SEC running back T.J. Yeldon, who rushed for 1,235 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, returns along with sophomore Derrick Henry. The receiving corps will consist of explosive junior wide receiver Amari Cooper (45 catches, 736 yards, four TDs) and seniors DeAndrew White and Christion Jones. Up front, the Crimson Tide will need to fill the left tackle position vacated by Cyrus Kouandijo, but they return three other starters from last season, giving Alabama a reliable offensive line.
The Alabama defense gave up only 13.9 points per game last season (fourth in the country), but it was the worst opponent scoring average since the 2007 season. The Tide recorded only 17 total sacks and surrendered 45 points to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, the most points given up in the Saban era. There shouldn't be any worry concerning Kirby Smart’s defense, though.
Potential All-SEC sophomore defensive end A’Shawn Robinson (5.5 sacks) and senior nose guard Brandon Ivory, who has been suspended for the time being, will head the defensive line. The linebacking unit will be without two-time All-American linebacker C.J. Mosley, but senior Trey DePriest, a two-year starter, will ease the transition at middle linebacker with potential All-American talent. Other starting linebackers include Denzel Devall, Reggie Ragland and Xzavier Dixon.
In the secondary, hard-hitting junior strong safety Landon Collins will be the heart and soul after recording 70 tackles and two interceptions last season. The question in the secondary lies with cornerback Eddie Jackson, who tore his ACL in the spring.
The schedule should set up nicely for the Alabama. It opens up with a struggling West Virginia program, which went just 4-8 last season, in Atlanta then hosts Florida Atlantic, Southern Miss and Florida.
A road trip Oct. 4 at Ole Miss could be a challenge in the Crimson Tide's first true road game of the season, but they haven't lost to the Rebels since 2003. They'll then host Texas A&M at home Oct. 18 and be in for a much easier win without having the task of defending Johnny Manziel for a third straight year. The real challenge comes at SEC West rival LSU on Nov. 8 and at home against hated in-state rival Auburn, which destroyed its national title hopes last season.
Alabama will only surrender one loss during their regular-season schedule before heading to Atlanta for the SEC Championship game.