TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The theme for the Alabama football team is pretty straightforward this year: get back to the top.
Two losses to end the 2013 season, including a heartbreaker to their in-state rival that knocked them out of the national title picture, have left the Crimson Tide with a bad taste in their mouth. The idea of revenge has been on the team’s mind since it left New Orleans after an uninspiring 45-31 Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma.
Another No. 1 recruiting class, several returning veterans and a renewed sense of purpose have the team and its fans energized for the upcoming campaign, but there are still question marks to be sure, the biggest of all being at the game’s most important position.
Below, Bleacher Report breaks down everything you need to know about the 2014 Crimson Tide in our complete season preview.
|Title||Name||Years on Team|
|Head Coach||Nick Saban||8|
|Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach||Lane Kiffin||1|
|Defensive Coordinator/Secondary Coach||Kirby Smart||8|
|Associate Head Coach/Running Backs Coach||Burton Burns||8|
|Offensive Line Coach||Mario Cristobal||2|
|Wide Receivers Coach||Billy Napier||2|
|Tight Ends Coach/Special Teams Coordinator||Bobby Williams||7|
|Defensive Line Coach||Bo Davis||1|
|Inside Linebackers Coach/Special Assistant to Head Coach||Kevin Steele||2|
|Outside Linebackers Coach||Lance Thompson||3|
|Strength and Conditioning Coach||Scott Cochran||8|
There is very much a getting-the-band-back-together feel for the 2014 coaching staff, especially on the defensive side of the ball, where it's a near mirror image of the 2007 staff that built the foundation for coach Nick Saban and Alabama’s run through college football.
Kevin Steele returned to Tuscaloosa in 2013 as director of player personnel and this year will be back on the field coaching inside linebackers like he did from 2007-08. Bo Davis was hired back from Texas to once again coach the defensive line. Thompson returned for the 2012 season and this year will work with the outside linebackers. And while Kirby Smart has been on staff for Saban’s entire time at Alabama, he’s now working with the secondary.
Those four are back with the position groups they coached in 2007.
And then there’s Lane Kiffin.
Possibly the biggest surprise piece of news from the college football offseason was Saban and Alabama hiring the former Tennessee and USC coach to be the Crimson Tide’s offensive coordinator.
Kiffin had come in as an offensive consultant during Alabama’s Sugar Bowl prep (while Kiffin had nothing else to do after his firing from USC), but hardly anyone expected him to join the staff full time.
He’s drawn high praise from players and coaches so far during the spring and fall camp and should bring some creativity to the Crimson Tide offense, while not deviating from what it does best.
“Very small changes just to make sure at the end of the day we're putting our great players in the best position to utilize their talents in the best position for us to win games,” Kiffin said at the start of fall camp.
“Coming here and being around the people of Alabama, they have been great. They've really welcomed me from the day I got here and really made me feel at home no matter where it is around town.
"Whether it's the people in the building, whether it's the fanbase, I'm just excited to be a part of this and just excited to go back to work, go back to work and doing like the last two days and being in there, to grind in football, to grind in camp and just be a part of this staff and program with these players.”
What to watch for on offense
|Position||1st String||2nd String||3rd String|
|QB||Blake Sims/Jake Coker||Alec Morris||Cooper Bateman|
|RB||T.J. Yeldon||Derrick Henry||Kenyan Drake|
|WR (X)||Amari Cooper||ArDarius Stewart||Raheem Falkins/Cam Sims|
|WR (Z)||DeAndrew White||Robert Foster||N/A|
|WR (H)||Christion Jones||Chris Black||N/A|
|TE||Brian Vogler/O.J. Howard||Dakota Ball||Ty Flournoy-Smith|
|FB||Jalston Fowler||Michael Nyeswander/Kurt Freitag/Corey McCarron||Michael Nyeswander/Kurt Freitag/Corey McCarron|
|LT||Cam Robinson||Dominick Jackson||N/A|
|LG||Arie Kouandjio||Ross Pierschbacher||N/A|
|C||Ryan Kelly||Bradley Bozeman/Josh Casher||N/A|
|RG||Alphonse Taylor||Leon Brown||N/A|
|RT||Austin Shepherd||Grant Hill||N/A|
|K||Adam Griffith||JK Scott||N/A|
|PR||Christion Jones||Cyrus Jones||N/A|
|KOR||Christion Jones and DeAndrew White||Cyrus Jones and Landon Collins||N/A|
Update: Above is the official depth chart provided by coach Nick Saban.
Quite possibly the two biggest storylines on the team are on offense: Kiffin and the quarterbacks.
Alabama's most anticipated newcomers in 2014 Lane Kiffin & Jacob Coker pic.twitter.com/gcBLIw9jgT— The Game (@TheGameWDGM) August 9, 2014
For Kiffin, it’s about making small changes that put Alabama’s best players in a position to succeed, something that may have been lacking under former offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier.
“Lane has done a really good job since he’s been here providing good leadership for the whole offense,” Saban said.
“The direction we want to go, the identity we want to have, and emphasizing some of the intangible things—the fundamentals—we needed to improve on. I think he does a really good job in terms of—you know, it’s not just about knowledge. Some people have a tremendous amount of knowledge, but you have to be able to articulate it to the players in a way they can understand it, and it’s simple for them to go out and execute it.
"Systematically, Lane does that with the players he coaches and with the entire offense, which I think is really, really important.”
If you were looking for answers at quarterback before the season, you were sorely disappointed.
Neither Blake Sims nor Jake Coker separated himself from the other, so this battle will likely continue well into the season. And Saban has offered no real judgement either way on either guy, except to say that Sims is playing a bit faster because of his familiarity in the offense.
The offensive line is pretty much set except for right guard. Alphonse Taylor has been the primary option there with Leon Brown and JUCO transfer Dominick Jackson nursing minor injuries. Brown, Jackson and Taylor will battle for that starting spot during the first week of game practice.
Otherwise, Alabama is as loaded as it has ever been at skill positions.
Alabama Running Backs Level Drills 8/21/14 http://t.co/2CtB9OTAwp— Tide 99.1 (@Tide991fm) August 22, 2014
T.J. Yeldon leads an extremely capable and diverse running back group. The powerful Derrick Henry and the lightning-quick Kenyan Drake will spell Yeldon throughout the season.
And at wide receiver, Amari Cooper is the star of a unit that could go four and five deep with elite talent.
What to watch for on defense
|Position||1st string||2nd string||3rd string|
|DE||Jonathan Allen/Dalvin Tomlinson||Dee Liner||N/A|
|DT||A'Shawn Robinson||Darren Lake/Brandon Ivory||Josh Frazier|
|DE||D.J. Pettway||Da'Shawn Hand/Jarran Reed||N/A|
|JACK||Xzavier Dickson||Ryan Anderson||N/A|
|MIKE||Trey DePriest/Reuben Foster||Shaun Dion Hamilton||N/A|
|WILL||Reggie Ragland/Reuben Foster||Walker Jones||N/A|
|SAM||Denzell Devall||Dillon Lee||Rashaan Evans/Christian Miller|
|CB||Cyrus Jones||Tony Brown/Eddie Jackson||N/A|
|CB||Bradley Sylve||Maurice Smith/Marlon Humphrey||N/A|
|FS||Nick Perry/Geno Smith||Jabriel Washington||N/A|
|SS||Landon Collins||Jarrick Williams||Laurence "Hootie" Jones|
|P||JK Scott||Alec Morris||N/A|
Update: Above is the official depth chart provided by coach Nick Saban.
A quick look at the defensive lineup for Alabama shows that the Crimson Tide should be much improved in the pass-rushing department.
The defensive line may be as deep as Saban has seen at Alabama, headlined by the hulking sophomore A’Shawn Robinson, who led the team in sacks as a freshman. D.J. Pettway is back on the team after being dismissed in early 2013 in connection with an on-campus robbery. Freshmen Da’Shawn Hand and Josh Frazier have been making their names known as well.
At linebacker, Trey DePriest will look to fill the leadership gap left with the departure of C.J. Mosley. Reggie Ragland has come along in his development, and former 5-star Reuben Foster is looking to make the next step and get significant playing time.
“I think Reuben’s first practice and how he picked it up, he looked like a guy lost,” defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said at the start of fall camp.
“He could run fast, play hard, didn’t know what he was doing all the time. I actually texted him after practice last night, I said ‘You’ve come a long way. You still have a ways to go.’ But he’s comfortable in the huddle now, he can command the huddle. He can make the calls, he can make the adjustments. He knows what’s going on. I think he feels much more comfortable.”
Landon Collins leads a secondary with experience at safety but still looking for consistency at cornerback. Cyrus Jones and Bradley Sylve took their lumps in 2013 but will be pushed by 5-star freshmen Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey. Brown, who enrolled in the spring, looks like a candidate to play a lot as a freshman.
|Player Name||Injury||Expected Return Date|
|O.J. Smith||Shoulder||Out for season|
The only major injury right now is to cornerback Eddie Jackson, whose rehab from a knee injury sustained during the spring is going much more quickly than expected.
Jackson was Alabama’s No. 1 cornerback before his spring injury. His return would give Alabama a solid option at corner while others battled it out behind him.
"Eddie Jackson is back practicing and doing well," Saban said on Thursday. "But probably not where he needs to be to be able to—because he missed a few practices—we're just going to take him one day at a time and see how fast he progresses, see where he gets to."
Otherwise, just about everyone else who was nicked up in practice is back on the field working back to full speed. The only question in terms of being ready for the season opener is defensive lineman A’Shawn Robinson, who tweaked his knee in camp but is working to get his quickness back. Said Saban of Robinson: “When he’s ready to play, we’ll play him.”
On offense, tight end O.J. Howard could give Alabama the type of weapon it hasn’t had under Saban.
The 6’6”, 240-pound Howard moves like a wide receiver and has hands like one too. He was seemingly underutilized in 2013, catching just 14 passes in 13 games, and Kiffin has talked about him as a mismatch player—someone who can cause major problems for a defense.
Howard can also be a good safety net for the new quarterback, providing a security blanket as a third or fourth option in the passing game when nothing is open downfield.
Defensively, 5-star freshman Rashaan Evans could give Alabama that dynamic pass-rusher that it’s lacked since Courtney Upshaw in 2011.
Evans has benefited from Tim Williams’ suspension by taking extra reps at outside linebacker and getting to impress coaches. He’s also made a mark on his teammates.
“Rashaan Evans is really fast,” right tackle Austin Shepherd said. “He’s got really good speed off the edge.”
|Aug. 30||West Virginia||Atlanta|
|Sep. 6||Florida Atlantic||Tuscaloosa|
|Sep. 13||Southern Miss||Tuscaloosa|
|Oct 4||Ole Miss||Oxford, Miss.|
|Oct 11||Arkansas||Fayetteville, Ark.|
|Oct 18||Texas A&M||Tuscaloosa|
|Oct 25||Tennessee||Knoxville, Tenn.|
|Nov. 8||LSU||Baton Rouge, La.|
|Nov. 15||Mississippi State||Tuscaloosa|
|Nov. 22||Western Carolina||Tuscaloosa|
The first real test for Alabama (and its new quarterback) will come when Florida comes to Tuscaloosa for the Crimson Tide’s first SEC game of the season and first game against a team that could do some damage against them.
The game being in Bryant-Denny Stadium should help Alabama ease into the SEC grind a little bit, but there won’t be much room for error against the Gators.
Two weeks later, after a bye, a road trip to Ole Miss could cause some problems. The Rebels took down LSU at home last season and could put the Crimson Tide on their heels with a quick score or two to open things up in Oxford.
A trip to Knoxville could be tricky, but Alabama’s next major test doesn’t come until its annual November showdown with LSU, this time in Baton Rouge. Depending on what happens early in the year, that game could be a major player in the SEC West crown, a game that’s come down to the wire the last three years in Tiger Stadium.
Finally, the rematch that fans and players have been waiting for will come at the end of the regular season. The Iron Bowl should be one of the most anticipated games of the 2014 college football season with major implications across the country.
I picked Alabama to lose two games this season, largely because of the question mark at quarterback.
The team should find its rhythm eventually, but an early visit to Ole Miss looks daunting, especially for a new signal-caller.
LSU will be extremely tight as well, as the Tigers are regularly one of the few teams in the country that can match Alabama talent-wise and have the advantage of playing in front of their home crowd, where “opponents' dreams come to die,” according to their coach, Les Miles.
Two losses won’t totally knock Alabama out of the SEC or even College Football Playoff contention, though. The West will be quite the meat grinder this year, and if some tiebreakers go the Crimson Tide’s way, they could find themselves in Atlanta.
Overall record: 10-2
Conference record: 7-2
Follow on Twitter @marctorrence.