TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The University of Alabama football program won a title last season, two actually.
You wouldn’t know it by the way everyone has talked about the Crimson Tide since—media, fans, even students. If it was another sport, Alabama could raise banners for the Southeastern Conference’s West Division and the league championship, yet most consider 2014 to have been a down year due to the way it ended in the inaugural playoffs.
“I look at the ring every now and then, but it doesn’t feel like we even won,” senior center Ryan Kelly said. “It doesn’t. At the time it was an awesome feeling. We get the chance to play Ohio State.
“After we lost to Ohio State, I just, all that season was for nothing.”
That was rallying point throughout the offseason, with constant reminders that last year’s defense wasn’t good enough, nor the team’s finish, at least by Alabama’s standards under Nick Saban.
“We’re not allowed to have a bad season, because the fans will let you know when you’re playing badly,” senior linebacker Reggie Ragland said. “We have to have the right mindset at all times because the players that came before us instilled something that we have to keep finishing and keep going on.”
Alabama certainly has the talent to do so. Among the 85 scholarship players this summer, 18 had been rated by 247Sports to be 5-star prospects as recruits, with 47 4-star players. Combined, that’s 76 percent of the roster, meaning this team is arguably as talented and loaded as any Saban’s ever had.
2015 Alabama Coaching Staff
|Name||Position||Years on staff|
|Nick Saban||Head Coach||9|
|Lane Kiffin||Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks||2|
|Kibry Smart|| Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers||9|
|Burton Burns||Associate Head Coach/Running Back||9|
|Mario Cristobal||Offensive Line||3|
|Bo Davis||Defensive Line||6*|
|Tosh Lupoi||Outside Linebackers||1|
|Billy Napier||Wide Receivers||3|
|Mel Tucker||Assistant Head Coach/Defensive Backs||1|
|Bobby Williams||Tight Ends/Special Teams Coordinator||8|
|Scott Cochran||Director of Strength and Conditioning||9|
Saban is back for his ninth season at Alabama, which is nearly twice as long as anywhere else he’s coached, and he’ll turn 64 this fall, specifically on Halloween when the team is enjoying its bye.
Due to make more than $7 million this year, Saban’s the highest-paid coach in college football, and for once there appears to be no one looming to trying and pry him away or talk of a potential return to the National Football League.
Also back are both coordinators. Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart is looking for a bounce-back season while Lane Kiffin returned for what he called his “sophomore” year under Saban.
“There’s still so many things to learn from Coach,” the offensive coordinator said.
While Alabama can no longer claim to have five coaches on the staff with head coaching experience, as linebackers coach Kevin Steele left to be LSU’s defensive coordinator, it instead added a big-time NFL presence with Mel Tucker overseeing the defensive backs.
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports
After 10 years in the NFL, Mel Tucker is back working with Nick Saban as Alabama’s secondary coach.
He spent the last two seasons as the defensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears and before that had the same position with the Jacksonville Jaguars (2009-12) and Cleveland Browns (2008). Saban gave him his coaching start as a graduate assistant at Michigan State (1997-98), and Tucker was his secondary coach at LSU (2000).
“Mel does a great job with the kids. He has a great demeanor. Kids really respect him. They know he’s got a lot of NFL experience,” Smart said. “When you turn on a clip of an NFL drill, eyes pop open a little more.”
Alabama’s other coaching move was to promote Tosh Lupoi to outside linebackers coach, a position he had previously held at California and Washington.
“Coach Tosh, he’s energetic every day,” senior linebacker Denzel Devall said. “There’s not a dull moment. He preaches on doing the right thing every play, looking at the right stuff, eyes at the right thing. Great hand placement. He’s a technician. Effort, energetic guy, you know. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him down. Just a great coach.”
What to watch for on offense
Alabama 2015 Offensive Depth Chart
|Position||1st String||2nd String||3rd String|
|QB||Jake Coker||Alex Morris||Cooper Bateman|
|RB||Derrick Henry||Kenyan Drake||Damien Harris|
|WR (X)||ArDarius Stewart||Parker Barrineau||Daylon Charlot|
|WR (Z)||Robert Foster||Derek Kief||Calvin Ridley|
|WR (H)||Chris Black||Richard Mullaney||N/A|
|TE||O.J. Howard||TY Flournoy-Smith||Dakota Ball|
|LT||Cam Robinson||Korren Kirven||Lester Cotton|
|LG||Ross Pierschbacher||Isaac Luatua||Richie Petitbon|
|C||Ryan Kelly||Bradley Bozeman||J.C. Hassenauer|
|RG||Alphonse Taylor||Bradley Bozeman||Brandon Greene|
|RT||Dominick Jackson||Brandon Greene||Matt Womack|
|K||Adam Griffith||JK Scott||Gunnar Raborn|
|KR/PR||Cyrus Jones||Chris Black||Richard Mullaney|
Compiled by the author
Note: Alabama’s official offensive depth chart won’t be released until next week
Losing nine starters would mean disaster for most offenses, but Alabama’s style of play will likely lead to a bigger decrease in its statistics than the turnover in personnel.
With the quarterback competition possibly continuing into the regular season and the offensive line looking like it could be Alabama’s best in years, a bigger emphasis on ball control and the running game is expected.
“Obviously we want to be tough and physical and run the ball,” Kiffin said.
That begins with junior running back Derrick Henry, who ended up leading the Crimson Tide in rushing last season despite not being the starter.
Stacy Revere/Getty Images
For two years Alabama fans have eagerly watched Derrick Henry’s rise up the depth chart to starter.
Listed as 6’3”, 242 pounds, he’s physically similar to Eddie George when he played at Ohio State. At Yulee High School in Florida, he broke Ken Hall’s 51-year-old national rushing record with 12,124 yards after rushing for 4,261 as a senior in 2012.
He’s gone from being a monster of a prospect to playing in 26 career games, for 1,372 career rushing yards (6.6 average per carry) and 17 touchdowns, with six receptions for 194 yards and three more scores.
Complementing him is senior Kenyan Drake, whom Kiffin has described as a Reggie Bush-type player. Alabama will line him up at running back and out wide to exploit mismatches in coverage.
“He has so many things that he does well,” Saban said. “He has great speed. He has very good running skills and running instincts, but he’s a fantastic receiver.”
Although there’s obviously no replacing a wide receiver like Amari Cooper, who set numerous school records last season, ArDarius Stewart will be the primary wide receiver. Coaches hope that sophomore Robert Foster and junior tight end O.J. Howard have breakout seasons, but fans should also keep an eye out for promising true freshman receiver Calvin Ridley.
What to watch for on defense
2013 Alabama Defensive Depth Chart
|Position||1st String||2nd String||3rd String|
|DE||Jonathan Allen||Dalvin Tomlinson||Da’Shawn Hand|
|NG||Jarran Reed||Darren Lake||Joshua Frazier/O.J. Smith|
|DE||D’Shawn Robinson||D.J. Pettway||Daron Payne|
|SLB||Denzel Devall||Rashaan Evans||Christian Miller|
|MLB||Reuben Foster||Shaun Dion Hamilton||Walker Jones|
|WLB||Reggie Ragland||Dillon Lee||Keith Holcombe|
|Jack||Ryan Anderson||Tim Williams||Adonis Thomas/Joshua McMillon|
|CB||Marlon Humphrey||Tony Brown||Anthony Averett|
|SS||Eddie Jackson||Hootie Jones||Deionte Thompson|
|FS||Geno Smith||Ronnie Harrison||Shawn Burgess-Becker|
|CB||Cyrus Jones||Minkah Fitzpatrick||Kendall Sheffield|
|Star||Maurice Smith||Bradley Sylve||Jabriel Washington|
|P||JK Scott||Alec Morris||N/A|
Compiled by the author
Note: Alabama’s official defensive depth chart won’t be released until next week
Led by its front seven, which returned nearly intact, Alabama’s defense hopes to draw comparison to the 2011 unit that led the nation in all four major statistical categories (total, scoring, rushing and pass-efficiency defense).
“That defensive line is a beast,” Henry said. “You’ve got four or five big guys who dominate every play and give it their all every play, and that’s all you can ask from the defensive line.”
Last season, Jarran Reed led the line with 55 tackles, which was the second most by a lineman during the Saban era (Wallace Gilberry in 2007). Thanks to a 15-tackle tally against LSU, which tied former middle linebacker Rolando McClain (vs. Auburn 2007 and Tulane 2008), for the most by an Alabama player under Saban, he edged out A’Shawn Robinson’s 49.
A preseason All-SEC selection, Robinson was once described by Senior Bowl director Phil Savage as a “man-child.” At the other end spot, Jonathan Allen has 49 career tackles with 14.5 tackles for loss and six sacks. An All-SEC selection by media last season, he’s already made 25 starts heading into his junior season. In 2014, he was second in team sacks with 5.5 and had seven hurries.
Meanwhile, Ragland might be the favorite for the Butkus Award after being a semifinalist last season.
“He’s been one of our best playmakers on defense and been one of our most productive players,” Saban said of the unit’s anticipated leader—not just for the linebackers, but the entire defense.
Adding to Alabama’s optimism is that after having issues at cornerback during the past couple of seasons, not only does the Crimson Tide have quality starters there but depth.
Senior Cyrus Jones was named preseason All-SEC while Marlon Humphrey, Tony Brown and Minkah Fitzpatrick hope to start Alabama’s next wave of first-round draft picks among defensive backs similar to Mark Barron, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Kareem Jackson, Dre Kirkpatrick and Dee Milliner.
With coaches using converted cornerbacks Eddie Jackson and Geno Smith at safety, they figure to get a little more help on the edges as well. If so, Alabama should meet its targeted areas for improvement: turnovers, big plays and third-down defense.
Compiled by the author
For the most part, Alabama emerged from training camp relatively unscathed in terms of major injuries.
Most notable were a toe injury that cost Coker three days during the heart of camp and a sprained knee to sophomore left tackle Cam Robinson.
“The injury wasn’t serious,” Robinson said. “It just scared me. It wasn’t that big of a deal.”
Although coming out of the spring the biggest concern was the health and depth of the running backs, that changed during training camp to the wide receivers. Junior Chris Black (ankle) and sophomore Robert Foster (sprained knee) both suffered camp injuries, sophomore Cam Sims (ACL) has only recently started practicing and junior Raheem Falkins (leg) is still out.
At running back, senior Kenyan Drake was already coming off last season’s fractured leg and dislocated ankle only to be limited by a hamstring issue during camp. Freshman Bo Scarbrough is coming off a spring knee injury but will be out four games anyway while serving an eligibility suspension in September.
Otherwise, coaches have been cautious with the running backs to try to keep them as fresh as possible entering the season.
At cornerback, Brown (shoulder) and Humphrey (pulled muscle) have been playing through injuries, while offensive tackles Dominick Jackson (shoulder) and Korren Kirven (sprained knee) are expected to be out a few days this week.
Alabama’s pack mentality with the defense goes far beyond the players who will be listed as starters, especially with the pass rush. The Crimson Tide have 14 players who were in on a sack in 2014 and all but one of them is back looking for more.
“We have a lot of guys who can contribute,” Ragland said.
While Devall, Ryan Anderson and versatile Dillon Lee figure to be Alabama’s primary outside linebackers, behind them is a bunch of young fast “quick-twitch” players, including sophomore Rashaan Evans, redshirt freshman Christian Miller and junior Tim Williams. All could be poised for a breakout season.
“They always go out there and are always doing 110 percent, flying around, doing everything they can,” Lee said about his talented understudies. “We have people breaking on the ball really fast and are disruptive.”
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Alabama’s ability to pressure the quarterback will likely cause a lot of problems for opponents in 2015.
Ragland believes Williams has the speed and size to top Xzavier Dickson’s nine sacks and 12.5 tackles for a loss last season and maybe even lead the nation in sacks if he’s hungry enough.
Although fans shouldn’t expect Alabama to match the numbers that Saban’s teams posted at Michigan State (for example, the 1999 team notched 60 sacks and 119 tackles for a loss), getting more pressure on the quarterback has been a priority and reflected in the latest staff additions of defensive line coach Bo Davis, Tucker and Lupoi.
Before serving as an Alabama analyst last season Lupoi was at Washington, which ranked fourth nationally in sacks per game (3.15) in 2013. One of his former players, outside linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha, led college football with 19 sacks in 2014.
“What he brings to pass rushing and disrupting the pocket is really unbelievable,” Lee said. “Always aggressive.”
Alabama 2015 Schedule
|Sept. 5||Wisconsin||Arlington, Texas|
|Sept. 12||Middle Tennessee||Tuscaloosa|
|Sept. 19||Ole Miss||Tuscaloosa|
|Oct. 3||Georgia||Athens, Ga.|
|Oct. 17||Texas A&M||College State, Texas|
|Nov. 14||Mississippi State||Starkville, Miss.|
|Nov. 21||Charleston Southern||Tuscaloosa|
|Nov. 28||Auburn||Auburn, Ala.|
There are two necessary elements in order to have what’s called a “trap” game: an overlooked opponent aided by timing.
Alabama doesn’t have to worry about that this season because there really aren’t any opponents to overlook. The schedule is that difficult and widely called the toughest in college football.
Going by the preseason Associated Press Poll, the Crimson Tide are slated to face seven different teams that were in the Top 25, in addition to the top two vote-getters among teams not ranked, Mississippi State and Texas A&M. Should they move up, Alabama could be looking at facing nine ranked teams plus potentially playing another in the SEC Championship Game.
Last year, Ohio State faced one ranked opponent during the regular season followed by three more at the end—in the Big Ten title game, the Sugar Bowl and the national championship. The total of four marked the fewest ranked teams a national champion had faced since Texas in 2005.
The record for most ranked opponents faced by a national champion is eight, LSU in 2007. So for Alabama to win the crown this season, it might have to accomplish something that’s never been done in the history of college football.
Nevertheless, Alabama’s schedule is so brutal that no one has to hear a player say they’re going to take it one game at a time because there’s really no other way to approach it.
Alabama opens in the marquee game of Week 1 against Wisconsin in the 2015 AdvoCare Classic at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, and two weeks later gets a rematch with the only team that defeated it during the 2014 regular season, Ole Miss.
Things get tougher in October when the Crimson Tide could face four straight ranked opponents: at Georgia, Arkansas, at Texas A&M and Tennessee. November features the usual onslaught of LSU, at Mississippi State (which Alabama knocked from No. 1 last year) and finally at Auburn, which could again determine the division title.
As Saban would say, “It is what it is,” but there’s no doubt that the Crimson Tide will be tested.
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
Alabama wants more than another SEC title in 2015.
If Alabama doesn’t have its toughest schedule in program history, it’s definitely on the short list. If it makes the SEC Championship Game, it will probably have played 10 teams that were ranked at some point.
Saban has only had one undefeated team, the 2009 national champions, and the turnover on offense paired with the uncertainly at quarterback makes another unlikely. Yet a strong defense and running game alone make Alabama a strong contender assuming it can avoid key injuries.
If Alabama can get through the regular season with just one loss, it’ll be a shoe-in for the playoffs. The guess here is that it’ll lose two but still represent the West Division in Atlanta, where a win would earn a spot in football’s version of the Final Four.
Overall record: 10-2
League record: 6-2
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.