This week I asked three RBR writers (Jtadpole, SoGladILeftTheACC and OleWhistleBritches) to answer a few questions on the upcoming season. $20 says you won't be able to guess who wrote the longest answers.
1. Not since 2010 has an Alabama team had this many question marks at so many positions. As always, the talent is there but this year the experience is lacking. So, which area on the team gives you the most anxiety and why?
JTad- I'll say the QB position. It's never good to go into the season with an unknown quantity at that spot. Here's hoping that Coker is able to come in and perform well enough. Considering the weapons at his disposal, he doesn't have to be elite.
SoGlad- The offensive line (and even more specifically, their run blocking) is the thing worrying me the most right now - for this team to be successful with a young defense while playing against an increasing number of teams that want to try the HUNH game, our running game has to be the star. The RBs will be fine if the line can create and hold gaps, but I'm not convinced that the line will be able to. The early date with Florida should be a good measuring stick - in spite of other issues last year, the Gators return a lot of guys from a solid defensive front.
OWB- I have two primary areas of concern, and both will be make-or-break, critical turning points for the 2014 incarnation of the Tide. First of all, there is obviously a need for improvement along the offensive line, with several veterans to be replaced and a need for overall improvement throughout the unit. It's not that Bama's line woes last year were a product of an absolute dearth of talent. The problems seemed to be based a little more on an overall lack of cohesiveness along the line, and the lack of a true leader. Think of Bama's great lines of recent memory. All had that guy who could step up at a critical point in the game and demand the best from his line mates. Last year's team didn't have a Barrett Jones or a William Vlachos. For Bama's line to avoid the same fate this year, leadership will have to emerge along the veteran players on the line, and newcomer like Cam Robinson will be called upon to mature early. The jury is still out somewhat regarding Mario Cristobal, but history indicates the problem doesn't necessarily lie on the sidelines, but no one can deny that last year's line woes were persistent and disturbing to say the least. If the line can congeal, the Tide has the running backs to dominate almost any opponent, regardless of which QB ends up under center. When the line is dominant and the running game is clicking, the QB need only do no harm to lead the Bama offense to success.
The other unit that concerns me is the safeties, particular the free safety position. Sure, Landon Collins is All-World and will dominate from the strong safety position as folks have forecasted since the prospect broke his mama's heart and signed with the Crimson Tide. But even the best strong safety can't make up for poor play at free, and right now, there are no definite heir apparent at the free safety position for Bama. Geno Smith has the skillset to be adequate in Saban's secondary, but he really is a natural corner in my mind. Asking him to play Star is one thing, but expecting him to become a fantastic free safety may be beyond the range of his immense talent. Jarrick Williams and Nick Perry are salty veterans, but neither has really done much to distinguish himself in a positive way in action last season. Granted, a lot can change in a year's time, and I think some combination of Perry, Williams ad Smith can be expected when the Tide rotates between its various secondary packages. But we as fans have ben shell-shocked plenty of late when it comes to the lack in the secondary, and while many may point the finger at Cyrus Jones at CB as the weak spot in the unit, I'm far more concerned about the ability of one of the three aforementioned to assert himself and become a force worthy of playing alongside the force that is Collins. Time will tell, hope for the best.
2. In which area are you most confident (and why)?
JTad- Has to be the rest of the offensive skill positions followed by the defensive front seven. Just too much talent in both areas to be unsuccessful. I'm looking for huge breakout years from a few, namely Robert Foster, OJ Howard, Reuben Foster, and DJ Pettway along with a resurgence from a healthy Amari Cooper and continued production in the backfield.
SoGlad- I'll go with the receivers - Amari Cooper, Christion Jones, and DeAndrew White are three guys that we have seen play well and can bring different things to the offense. As long as the QB-to-be can get the ball near them, those guys (plus OJ Howard and Brian Vogler, when they're put in the passing game) should be able to make big catches and help move the ball.
OWB- Since we went with two weaknesses, I'll focus on two strengths I believe this Tide team has in spades. The defensive line is obviously more talented and deep than it has been during Our Dark Lord's tenure at the Capstone, with sophomore A'Shawn Robinson drawing early pre-season accolades. And rightly so, the kid has been a flat out beast since setting foot in Tuscaloosa. Physically, he's become even more imposing over the last year, raising his bench max from 400 to 525. The kid is 19 years old. Scott Cochran simply doesn't get paid enough, no matter how much that is. But it's not a one man show on the defensive line. Despite some of-season transgressions, expect the veteran nose Brandon Ivory to be even better this year after showing great promise in his first year as the starter last year. And he'll have help in the interior of the line, with Darren Lake and other spelling the big man. Juco guys Jarran Reed and DJ Pettway are aggressive and physically dominant, and one of the two will end up with post-season honors this year, mark my words. Throw into the mix the ridiculous level of talent Saba has been stocking for the line, with guys like Denzel Devall, Johnathan Williams and newcomers Joshua Frazier and Da'Shawn Hand filling out the ranks, this should be Bama's best overall defensive line unit in Saba's time at Bama.
The other strength is obvious...the WR corps is ridiculous. The running backs get a lot of ink, but Amari Cooper and DeAndrew White could very well be the best 1-2 WR tandem in college football. Christion Jones provides veteran leadership and explosiveness, and expect to see his understudy Chris Black make noise this year in Lane Kiffin's offense. Add into the mix some wildcard talent like Robert Foster, ArDarius Stewart and Raheem Falkins, and this corps of receivers could be one of Bama's best, historically. Granted, someone has to get the ball to them, but I expect that will shake out as it has in the past, and the next gunslinger-in-waiting will get the job done at QB.
3. What are your thoughts on the Lane Kiffin hire and what we should expect from his offense this season? Saban seems confident but most fans have their reservations.
JTad- I'm a bit ambivalent on the OC, honestly, because I do think Saban basically tells the OC what style of offense he will run. That said, Kiffin's main selling point had to be his experience running the machine that was the Leinart/Bush offense at USC. Alabama has arguably even more talent between the RBs, WRs, and TEs than that group did. Getting to distribute the ball to Yeldon, Henry, Cooper, White, Foster, Jones, Howard, et al must be like playing XBox
SoGlad- I think that the Kiffin hire will be great if he's kept on a media leash similar to what we've seen with Saban's other coordinators. I'm not expecting a huge change in the look of the offense - we've seen a very balanced attack in recent years, and I don't see that changing much. Hopefully Kiffin brings us some variety in red zone play calling, an area that has been frustrating at times.
OWB- Saban seems confident but most fans have their reservations. Believe me, when he was at Tennessee, I hated Lane Kiffin as much as any other self-respecting Southern football fan. He was everything we loathed: mouthy, brash, arrogant and disloyal. I actively rooted against the Trojans during his time with that university (as if it took much for me to despise USCw in the first place.) But when Saban made he hire, for some reason, I wasn't appalled. It probably has something to do with the fact that Saban has eared my trust, and rarely has he made a misstep while selecting assistance coaches. There was that whole Applewhite debacle, but I don't think that's what's going on here. I think Saban wasn't happy with watching his stable of thoroughbreds bridled by poor play-calling at time, and a seeming reluctance to spread the ball and take advantage of all the Tide offense had to offer. If nothing else, Kiffin can speak the language of the players, as ODL has already commended him for his communications skills when it comes to working with the players. I think there will be a little more creativity in the play-calling with Kiffin. I definitely think O.J. Howard will benefit from Kiffin's system. Howard is one of those weapons that simply cannot go underutilized. It is simply critical that his talent is put to good use, and Kiffin has shown a propensity to get the TE involved early and often. The mismatch possibilities are there to be exploited, and Kiffin is sharp enough to know that no linebacker in the league can cover O.J one-on-one.
I think the mystery will be which QB ultimately wins the race for the job, and how quickly that QB shows mastery of the system and earns the confidence of his coaches and teammates. If Kiffin is comfortable with his QB, then we will likely see the infamous bubble-screens, but we'll also see a lot better distribution of the ball to the various stud-bulls the Tide has on offense. Kiffin's success will also rely heavily on Cristobal's ability to get the job done with the line, as previously described. IF the line gels and can take over a game, Lane's job gets a lot easier, and he can play with the offense like a kid in a candy store. I like the hire and ultimately think it will be of benefit to Alabama. Like I said, Saban has earned my trust, and I give him the benefit of the doubt. The man seems to know what he's doing.
4. What are your expectations for the 2014 season? National championship or bust? Get to 10 wins and be thankful? Or something completely different?
JTad- I expect this team to once again be favored in every game on the schedule as it has in every game since the beginning of the 2010 season. As usual, the Tide will get everyone's best shot, which obviously increases the odds of an upset. Still, since nobody else wants to Gump, I will. Coker comes in and performs admirably, taking advantage of a stellar run threat and even stretching the field a bit more than AJ was able to just based on sheer arm strength and the mobility to extend plays.The additions of Pettway, Reed, Hand, and Tomlinson's return along with A'Shawn and Allen give us the best four-man pass rush we've seen in the Saban era, aiding a talented but green secondary. Alabama averages 40 points a game, gives up 14 a game, and rolls to 15 consecutive victories.
SoGlad- Optimistically? I want that ugly trophy. And I think that if we make the playoff, we'll take it home. Realistically, I could see a 10-win regular season, taking losses to a career performance from Bo Wallace in Oxford and an angry LSU team in Baton Rouge.
OWB- I'm a realist. The Tide is replacing a lot of veteran talent across the board, and that's never not scary. You can't replace C.J. Mosley, no matter how well you recruit. But the Tide has enough talent to make noise and win the majority of its games with relative ease. That doesn't mean there won't be a loss or two by season's end, but I don't see another 2010 season coming down the pipes. I just don't. I get the feeling was embarrassed badly enough at the end of last season to re-instill that fire, that hunger, that made the 2009, 2011 AND 2012 teams so special. Mental toughness is the most needed commodity among members of this Bama squad, and soon enough, they will get their baptism by fire. Could the Tide lose to LSU this year? Sure, that can happen in any year. But LSU has as much talent to replace as Bama, so that's not a given. Auburn will be tricky, but somehow, I think Malzahn's offense has an expiration date. Coaches will figure out how to defend it, and once the code is broken, that offense won't be nearly as effective. I have reason to believe that Saban has already figured it out, ala the UF spread option of 2008-2009. But that's fodder for another post.
Do I expect an undefeated season? Truthfully...no. A 10-win season? Absolutely. Do I expect a playoff berth? All Gumping aside, yes, I think Alabama will stand among those top four at season's end. The expectation of a championship every year is unreasonable in this day and age. But when you have a man like Saban
The Vince Lombardi quote (paraphrased) comes to mind..."Gentlemen, we will relentlessly chase perfection, and we will chase it knowing all the while we can never attain it. But along the way, we shall catch excellence." Bama's 2014 effort may not result in perfection, but it just well may result in greatness. I'll settle for greatness any day.