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Nick Saban's Alabama is evolving, but it's still Alabama

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The Crimson Tide have lost a handful of close games over the last few years. If you think that means the downfall's coming soon, you'll probably be disappointed.

Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Confused? Check out the advanced-stats glossary here.

1. Evolution is healthy

It sure doesn't take much to cause an existential crisis in Tuscaloosa.

For three consecutive years, Alabama has suffered what we've regarded as momentous, symbolic losses. In 2012, it was a 29-24 defeat at the hands of Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M. In 2013, it was the Kick Six to Auburn. In 2014, it was the 42-35 national semifinal to Ohio State.

In each of these instances, incredible offenses were able to damage what has frequently been an indomitable Nick Saban defense. Not a ton of damage; in each loss, the victor still managed fewer yards per play than its season average, and in only one of the three was an offense able to score even 30 points.

In fact, each loss was defined at least as much by Alabama's offensive failure. The Ohio State loss was addled by three second-half interceptions, two in Buckeye territory. The Auburn loss included four missed Tide field goal attempts and a fourth-down failure inside the Auburn 15. The A&M loss featured a lost fumble at the A&M 34 and a final-minutes interception in the end zone.

Because of field position dominance (Ohio State) and the creation of far more scoring opportunities (Auburn), two of these three were unlikely, from a statistical standpoint.

But when you rarely lose -- and Alabama has lost more than twice in a season once since 2007 -- we're going to milk all we can from the data points. Each of these three teams ran dominant versions of the spread offense and has used tempo to its advantage. For that matter, the other teams to most recently beat the Tide (2014 Ole Miss, 2013 Oklahoma) do, too. And two of these (A&M in 2013 and Auburn in 2014) found more offensive success in the rematches, even as their own defenses were getting washed out.

So the symbolism is set. Modern offense is overtaking Saban's defenses. And it's in Saban's head. He let new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin experiment with tempo. He's been recruiting dual-threat quarterbacks. He's ... *gasp* ... he's using play cards this year!

We laugh about Alabama's "failures" because of the bar Saban has set and the way he carries himself. He can be seen grousing on the sidelines when his defense suffers a breakdown in a blowout win. He would rather be able to communicate with his defenses between each play. He would rather get exotic in key situations instead of going with the simplest calls. And even after he found success with tempo, he still hated it.

College football in 2015 is not the version he would prefer. But this overshadows two key points:

  1. His defense is still awesome. Only four times in three years have the Tide allowed an opponent more yards per play than its full-season average, and only twice in the last seven seasons have they ranked worse than third in Def. S&P+ (14th in 2010, sixth in 2013). They were third last season, behind Ole Miss and Clemson, neither of which also had a top-30 offense (Bama was fifth).
  2. He is making changes. So often, coaches who find success on one side of the ball struggle to evolve when the game adapts. But Saban is adapting right back. He might not like having to change, but he's doing what it takes.

This May, I went to Germany to write the about most adaptable, consistently dominant team in sports: Bayern Munich. Part of their strength has come from being able to sense changes and absorb them. Despite dry spells, Alabama is the closest thing to Bayern in college football.

Bear Bryant adopted the emerging wishbone and experienced a second run of success in Tuscaloosa that exceeded his first. And now Saban is doing the same to some degree. He doesn't have to like it, but it will likely assure that he continues to win.

We may lean toward Auburn or some other West team because we're tired of the Tide, but that's our own fault. Year to year, Alabama is the surest bet in college football.

2014 Schedule & Results

Record: 12-2 | Adj. Record: 14-0 | Final F/+ Rk: 2
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Percentile
Performance
Adj. Scoring
Margin
Win
Expectancy
30-Aug vs. West Virginia 40 33-23 W 86% 25.0 91%
6-Sep Florida Atlantic 100 41-0 W 99% 59.9 100%
13-Sep Southern Miss 110 52-12 W 97% 45.7 100%
20-Sep Florida 32 42-21 W 98% 47.5 100%
4-Oct at Ole Miss 5 17-23 L 51% 0.7 10%
11-Oct at Arkansas 9 14-13 W 90% 29.3 84%
18-Oct Texas A&M 42 59-0 W 100% 72.8 100%
25-Oct at Tennessee 24 34-20 W 94% 36.3 98%
8-Nov at LSU 22 20-13 W 84% 23.4 80%
15-Nov Mississippi State 13 25-20 W 92% 32.7 87%
22-Nov Western Carolina N/A 48-14 W 85% 24.5 100%
29-Nov Auburn 7 55-44 W 94% 36.5 97%
6-Dec vs. Missouri 20 42-13 W 98% 47.3 100%
1-Jan vs. Ohio State 1 35-42 L 93% 35.4 82%

Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
S&P+ 43.1 5 14.8 3
Points Per Game 36.9 16 18.4 6

2. High floors

The best teams are the ones that not only play the most high-caliber ball but suffer the fewest lapses.

We can pretend suffering one-possession losses to two awesome teams (Ole Miss was the best in the country for the first two months, then Ohio State took the baton), both away from Tuscaloosa, is some serious character flaw. But Ole Miss in October and Ohio State in January were just about the only teams capable of taking down the Tide.

No team played at a more consistently high level than Alabama from the start of 2014 to the end. This manifested itself in a couple ways:

A. The highest floor. 127 of 128 FBS teams played at least one game below the 50th percentile. The Tide's loss to Ole Miss wasn't amazing, but it was the best worst game in the country. They played that game at the 51st percentile; Georgia Tech (49th), Ohio State (49th), and Auburn (46th) were also decent at their worst.

B. Minimal variance. In terms of week-to-week percentiles, Alabama's variance was the lowest in the country, followed by UNLV (the bad kind of low variance), Ohio State (good), New Mexico State (bad), Florida State (good), Tulsa (bad), and Idaho (bad). You could beat or stay close to Alabama, but you had to play at an incredibly high level to do so.

Perhaps we see more variance this year because of the youth on offense. Then again, the offensive line and defense have plenty of experience, so maybe not.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 0.89 41 IsoPPP+ 140.9 5
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 50.2% 4 Succ. Rt. + 133.5 2
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 26.9 8 Def. FP+ 107.1 7
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 5.0 20 Redzone S&P+ 134.1 3
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 18.3 ACTUAL 22 +3.7
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 18 4 3 5
RUSHING 37 11 4 18
PASSING 29 3 2 5
Standard Downs 3 2 7
Passing Downs 7 4 16
Q1 Rk 5 1st Down Rk 3
Q2 Rk 4 2nd Down Rk 5
Q3 Rk 5 3rd Down Rk 14
Q4 Rk 8

3. What you call vs. who you call it for

Lane Kiffin runs a bell cow offense. His tactics have evolved through the years, but his point of view has been simple: figure out who your best skill guys are and get the ball to them as much as they can stand. When you have the talent he recruited at USC and inherited at Alabama, that tends to work.

It can result in one hell of a workload, however. At USC in 2012, receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee accounted for two-thirds of the Trojans' pass targets; Lee alone was targeted 13 per game.

We saw the same effects in Kiffin's first year in Tuscaloosa. He determined the three who should be touching the ball were Amari Cooper, T.J. Yeldon, and Derrick Henry. Cooper was targeted with 39.8 percent of Alabama's passes (the second-highest target rate in the country behind Pitt's Tyler Boyd), while Yeldon and Henry combined for 26 carries per game. No running back carried more than 36 times, and only one other receiver (DeAndrew White) was targeted more than 31 times.

When you recruit like Alabama, this approach will usually pay off. Cooper averaged a robust 10 yards per target, and Yeldon and Henry helped Alabama rank fourth in Rushing Success Rate+ (efficiency). This can cause problems, however, on the rare occasion that teams figure out how to slow the bell cows down.

In Alabama's five closest games (the losses to Ole Miss and Ohio State and one-possession wins over Arkansas, LSU, and Mississippi State), Yeldon and Henry combined to average 4.3 or fewer yards per carry four times, and Cooper averaged 7.3 or fewer yards per target four times. These defenses were able to employ Xs and Os to stop Bama's Jimmies and Joes, and Bama was slow to come up with a Plan B despite countless former blue-chippers.

Granted, in the other nine, Yeldon/Henry averaged 6 yards per carry and Cooper 11.8 yards per target.

And now two of the three are gone. Henry returns and, if healthy, will likely take on a monstrous load. That's probably a good thing; two years into his career, the 242-pound Henry has averaged 6.6 yards per carry with 14 touchdowns, mostly as a backup. He's awesome.

But where else will Kiffin turn without last year's top three wideouts? It's hard to worry about running back, with senior Kenyan Drake and the latest five-star freshmen (Bo Scarbrough, Damien Harris) in line, but we know Kiffin will want to pass. Is tantalizing tight end O.J. Howard ready for a star turn after two spotty years? Is junior Chris Black (who did quite a bit with minimal touches last season) ready to become a go-to guy despite ankle issues in fall camp? Who else might command touches -- sophomores ArDarius Stewart, Cam Sims, and Robert Foster? Freshmen Derek Kief and Calvin Ridley?

And, of course, does Kiffin have a reliable quarterback?

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Blake Sims
252 391 3487 28 10 64.5% 13 3.2% 8.4
Jake Coker 6'5, 232 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8618 38 59 403 4 0 64.4% 3 4.8% 6.2
Alec Morris 6'3, 233 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8701
Cooper Bateman 6'3, 220 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9623
David Cornwell 6'5, 221 RSFr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9624
Blake Barnett 6'5, 200 Fr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9896

4. Options

If you don't have an obvious successor, you have to hope for a high number of options. Alabama does have the latter: FSU transfer Jake Coker, four-star sophomore Cooper Bateman, four-star redshirt freshman David Cornwell, four-star true freshman Blake Barnett.

A year ago, we assumed Coker would win the battle to succeed AJ McCarron. Blake Sims overtook him and acquitted himself well, throwing for nearly 3,500 yards and rushing for nearly 500 (sans sacks). Most offseason story lines labeled Coker as the favorite this year, too, but with three weeks til the first game, he still has yet to take the job. In fact, ESPN's Travis Haney is predicting Cornwell will overtake him.

Whoever wins won't inherit the toughest job in the country. He'll be sticking the ball into the belly of Henry, Drake, etc., probably 30 or so times per game. He'll have Black, Oregon State transfer Richard Mullaney, and a host of stud athletes lined up wide. He'll have Howard. And he'll throw quite a few easy passes to the perimeter; stretching the defense from sideline to sideline is a staple of Kiffin's.

Still, the key to Alabama's title hopes could be the quarterback's ability to avoid untimely mistakes. Sims threw only 10 interceptions in 14 games, but four came in Bama's two losses. Playing the odds, the Bama passing game will probably be fine, but we don't know until we see it.

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Opp.
Opp.
Rate
Fumbles Fum.
Lost
T.J. Yeldon RB
194 979 11 5.0 3.5 45.9% 2 1
Derrick Henry RB 6'3, 242 Jr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9928 172 990 11 5.8 4.6 46.5% 1 1
Blake Sims QB
70 438 7 6.3 4.6 60.0% 5 3
Tyren Jones RB
36 224 2 6.2 3.8 58.3% 1 1
Altee Tenpenny RB
26 136 0 5.2 3.2 46.2% 0 0
Kenyan Drake RB 6'1, 210 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9427 22 112 4 5.1 4.3 40.9% 1 1
Jalston Fowler FB
12 69 0 5.8 4.7 41.7% 1 1
Amari Cooper WR
5 23 0 4.6 6.8 60.0% 0 0
Jake Coker QB 6'5, 232 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8618 4 33 0 8.3 2.6 100.0% 0 0
Derrick Gore RB 5'11, 210 So. NR NR
Bo Scarbrough RB 6'2, 240 Fr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9916
Damien Harris RB 5'11, 205 Fr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9859







Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
%SD Yds/
Target
NEY Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Amari Cooper WR-X
173 124 1727 71.7% 39.8% 67.6% 10.0 257 9.9 292.5
DeAndrew White WR-Z
66 40 504 60.6% 15.2% 68.2% 7.6 15 8.1 85.4
Richard Mullaney
(Oregon State)
WR 6'3, 208 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8513 36 18 216 50.0% 7.8% 63.9% 6.0 -13 6.0 25.4
Christion Jones WR-H
31 19 264 61.3% 7.1% 64.5% 8.5 32 8.1 44.7
O.J. Howard TE 6'6, 242 Jr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9909 26 17 260 65.4% 6.0% 53.8% 10.0 55 10.0 44.0
T.J. Yeldon RB
24 15 180 62.5% 5.5% 54.2% 7.5 -2 7.3 30.5
Chris Black WR-H 6'0, 192 Jr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9768 18 15 188 83.3% 4.1% 72.2% 10.4 15 11.2 31.8
Jalston Fowler FB
18 11 129 61.1% 4.1% 88.9% 7.2 -5 6.2 21.9
ArDarius Stewart WR-X 6'1, 204 So. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9594 17 12 149 70.6% 3.9% 52.9% 8.8 6 9.1 25.2
Cam Sims WR-X 6'5, 209 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9610 13 7 62 53.8% 3.0% 69.2% 4.8 -26 4.0 10.5
Robert Foster WR-Z 6'2, 194 So. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9892 10 6 44 60.0% 2.3% 60.0% 4.4 -30 4.6 7.5
Brian Vogler TE
10 6 27 60.0% 2.3% 80.0% 2.7 -47 2.6 4.6
Derrick Henry RB 6'3, 242 Jr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9928 8 5 133 62.5% 1.8% 25.0% 16.6 72 20.7 22.5
Kenyan Drake RB 6'1, 210 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9427 6 5 159 83.3% 1.4% 83.3% 26.5 101 21.4 26.9
TY Flournoy-Smith TE 6'3, 247 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8768 4 2 18 50.0% 0.9% 75.0% 4.5 -7 4.4 3.0
Raheem Falkins WR-Z 6'4, 210 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8833 2 0 0 0.0% 0.5% 100.0% 0.0 -3 N/A 0.0
Derek Kief WR 6'4, 198 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9116









Calvin Ridley WR 6'1, 188 Fr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9928









Daylon Charlot WR 6'0, 195 Fr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9560









Hale Hentges WR 6'5, 235 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9332









Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 122.7 3.32 3.83 48.9% 66.7% 14.2% 196.8 1.9% 4.8%
Rank 6 17 16 2 66 9 6 8 23
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Career Starts Honors/Notes
Arie Kouandjio LG 27 All-American, 2014 1st All-SEC
Austin Shepherd RT
27 2014 2nd All-SEC
Ryan Kelly C 6'5, 297 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9009 22
Cam Robinson LT 6'6, 326 So. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9979 14
Leon Brown RG
13
Bradley Bozeman RG 6'5, 320 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8708 2
Alphonse Taylor RG 6'5, 325 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9066 2
Isaac Luatua LG 6'2, 315 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8744 0
Dominick Jackson RT 6'6, 315 Sr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9403 0
Korren Kirven LT 6'4, 300 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9288 0
Brandon Greene RT 6'5, 300 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9445 0
J.C. Hassenauer C 6'2, 295 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9263 0
Ross Pierschbacher LG 6'4, 298 RSFr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9646
Josh Casher OL 6'1, 294 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8956
Lester Cotton OL 6'4, 315 Fr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9732
Richie Petitbon OL 6'4, 315 Fr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9671
Dallas Warmack OL 6'2, 297 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9079
Brandon Kennedy OL 6'3, 290 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8973

5. Likely strength up front

In 2013, Alabama had to replace three All-Americans from a line that ranked first in the country in Adj. Line Yards; the Tide proceeded to plummet to ... sixth.

Last year, they had to replace an All-American (Cyrus Kouandjio), an all-conference guard (Anthony Steen), and two others with starting experience and ... remained sixth.

Between the talent on hand and the presence of line coach (and former successful FIU head coach) Mario Cristobal, it's hard to doubt this line.

The Tide once again have to replace some contributors. This time, it's three players who combined for 67 career starts (including All-American Arie Kouandjio). Center Ryan Kelly's back, as is Freshman All-American Cam Robinson. The rest of the lineup will include some combination of upperclassmen (Isaac Luatua, Alphonse Taylor, Dominick Jackson), and high-upside youngsters. And guess what: the line will probably be pretty good.

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Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 0.78 29 IsoPPP+ 133.7 6
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 36.1% 15 Succ. Rt. + 123.0 7
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 30.9 46 Off. FP+ 105.1 18
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 3.5 6 Redzone S&P+ 141.3 3
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 25.4 ACTUAL 20.0 -5.4
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 12 7 6 6
RUSHING 4 1 2 1
PASSING 59 17 27 16
Standard Downs 2 4 4
Passing Downs 32 19 37
Q1 Rk 4 1st Down Rk 13
Q2 Rk 14 2nd Down Rk 1
Q3 Rk 41 3rd Down Rk 24
Q4 Rk 2

6. Nowhere to run

It didn't take opponents long to figure out the better path to success.

Alabama ranked first in the country in Rushing S&P+, allowing only 3.2 yards per carry and 102 rushing yards per game. (This makes Ezekiel Elliott's 230-yard Sugar Bowl performance even more impressive, doesn't it?).

Meanwhile, the pass defense was only good. The Tide still ranked 17th in Passing S&P+ and allowed an overall passer rating of just 116.5. Only three teams topped a passer rating of 126: West Virginia, Ole Miss, and Auburn. The other 11 completed just 52 percent at 10.8 yards per completion.

Still, the pass was by far the easier way to go. And with Alabama returning almost all of its front seven (of the 12 linemen and linebackers who made at least 10 tackles last year, 10 are back) but replacing two starting safeties, that probably won't change.

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 144.6 2.26 2.19 31.6% 54.8% 26.4% 85.2 4.6% 5.6%
Rank 1 3 5 8 8 5 92 65 97
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Jarran Reed NG 6'4, 313 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8998 14 38.0 5.1% 6.5 1.0 0 5 0 0
A'Shawn Robinson DE 6'4, 312 Jr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9834 14 32.5 4.4% 6.5 0.0 0 3 1 0
Jonathan Allen DE 6'3, 272 Jr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9920 14 24.0 3.2% 11.0 5.0 0 1 0 0
D.J. Pettway DE 6'2, 270 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8994 14 18.0 2.4% 3.5 2.5 0 3 0 0
Dalvin Tomlinson DE 6'3, 294 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9162 14 15.0 2.0% 4.5 1.0 0 0 0 0
Brandon Ivory NG
14 7.0 0.9% 0.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Da'Shawn Hand DE 6'4, 273 So. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9978 9 5.5 0.7% 2.0 2.0 0 0 0 0
Darren Lake NG 6'3, 315 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8693 8 3.5 0.5% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Korren Kirven NG 6'4, 300 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9288
Joshua Frazier NG 6'4, 315 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9609
Daron Payne DL 6'2, 315 Fr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9870








Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Reggie Ragland WILL 6'2, 252 Sr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9790 14 69.5 9.4% 10.5 1.5 1 3 1 0
Trey DePriest MIKE
13 65.0 8.8% 5.0 0.0 0 3 1 0
Xzavier Dickson JACK
14 37.0 5.0% 12.5 9.0 0 2 0 0
Ryan Anderson JACK 6'2, 258 Jr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9618 14 18.5 2.5% 8.0 3.0 0 0 0 1
Reuben Foster MIKE 6'1, 240 Jr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9958 11 17.5 2.4% 2.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
Dillon Lee WILL 6'4, 242 Sr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9518 14 17.0 2.3% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Rashaan Evans WILL 6'3, 225 So. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9918 13 12.5 1.7% 2.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
Denzel Devall SAM 6'2, 252 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9387 8 7.0 0.9% 1.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Tim Williams JACK 6'4, 230 Jr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9613 12 3.5 0.5% 1.5 1.5 0 0 0 0
Shaun Dion Hamilton MIKE 6'0, 229 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9173 14 1.5 0.2% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Walker Jones WILL 6'2, 240 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8581
Christian Miller LB 6'4, 213 RSFr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9796
Keith Holcombe LB 6'4, 223 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8954
Mekhi Brown LB 6'5, 240 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9452
Anfernee Jennings OLB 6'3, 255 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9237
Joshua McMillon LB 6'3, 240 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9055
Adonis Thomas LB 6'2, 228 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9242








7. Best front seven in the country?

It's been a while since Alabama had a commanding pass rush; the Tide ranked 103rd in Adj. Sack Rate in 2013 and 92nd last fall. Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart rarely send the house, and that has put some pressure on the secondary to hold coverage longer on passing downs.

Still, while the pressure could stand to improve, that's as much feature as bug. Saban's defense has never felt the need to get too aggressive, preferring to pursue. Despite opponents' efforts to spread them out, they still make as many gang tackles as anybody in the country.

The pass rush won't be aided without Xzavier Dickson, who led the team with nine sacks. But between Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams (who made 1.5 sacks and just 2 non-sacks last year), the new jack backer will likely approach Dickson's nine sacks, and the rest of the front seven is just loaded. Ends A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen were dominant against the run, and Reggie Ragland is faster than a 250-pound OLB should be. And the requisite load of blue-chip underclassmen are waiting for an opportunity.

This unit is going to be too big, too strong, and too fast for a vast majority of opponents.

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Landon Collins SS
14 81.0 11.0% 4.5 0 3 7 1 1
Nick Perry FS
14 66.5 9.0% 4.5 0 2 5 0 0
Geno Smith FS 6'0, 196 Sr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9697 14 42.0 5.7% 3 0 0 1 1 0
Cyrus Jones CB 5'10, 196 Sr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9784 14 39.5 5.3% 2 0 3 13 2 1
Eddie Jackson SS 6'0, 194 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8857 11 36.5 4.9% 2 1 1 6 2 1
Jabriel Washington STAR 5'11, 182 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8902 13 14.0 1.9% 0 0 1 2 0 0
Jarrick Williams STAR
11 10.5 1.4% 0.5 0 0 3 0 0
Maurice Smith STAR 6'0, 199 Jr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9599 14 8.5 1.2% 0.5 0.5 0 1 0 0
Tony Brown CB 6'0, 195 So. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9951 13 8.5 1.2% 1 0 0 1 0 0
Bradley Sylve CB 6'0, 180 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9465 14 7.5 1.0% 0 0 0 2 0 0
Hootie Jones SS 6'2, 219 So. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9753
Anthony Averett CB 6'0, 180 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.9008
Marlon Humphrey CB 6'1, 192 RSFr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9940
Ronnie Clark DB 6'2, 228 RSFr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9659
Minkah Fitzpatrick DB 6'1, 195 Fr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9867
Kendall Sheffield DB 6'0, 185 Fr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9899
Deionte Thompson DB 6'2, 183 Fr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9795
Shawn Burgess-Becker DB 6'1, 205 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9261
Ronnie Harrison FS 6'3, 218 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9175

8. Still some shakiness in the back

Saban has loaded up on defensive backs in his last two signing classes, which makes the battle for playing time pretty interesting. Despite the loss of safeties Landon Collins, Nick Perry, and Jarrick Williams, Alabama returns six experienced juniors and seniors, and with Eddie Jackson and Geno Smith moving to safety, four of those six play safety. With senior Cyrus Jones holding down one starting corner position, that doesn't leave a lot of room for youth.

But between last year's "struggles" and the upside of the younger guys, a youth movement has to be a little tempting. Corners Tony Brown, Marlon Humphrey, and Minkah Fitzpatrick are all former five-star signees, and almost everybody on the above list was a four-star recruit according to one service or another.

They're starting to break into the second string in fall camp, but it looks like the Tide will choose experience over youth. We'll see what happens if there are a few more breakdowns on deep balls.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
JK Scott 6'5, 195 So. 55 48.0 5 19 31 90.9%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Adam Griffith 5'10, 192 Jr. 69 61.4 20 2 29.0%
JK Scott 6'5, 195 So. 24 62.5 8 1 33.3%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2015
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Adam Griffith 5'10, 192 Jr. 53-54 8-11 72.7% 4-8 50.0%
Gunnar Raborn 5'9, 187 So. 9-10 2-3 66.7% 0-0 N/A
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Christion Jones KR 37 23.0 0
Cyrus Jones KR 5'10, 196 Sr. 4 19.3 0
Christion Jones PR 19 8.0 0
Cyrus Jones PR 5'10, 196 Sr. 4 20.5 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 88
Field Goal Efficiency 100
Punt Return Efficiency 118
Kick Return Efficiency 103
Punt Efficiency 4
Kickoff Efficiency 75
Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency 117

9. All-or-nothing special teams

Alabama ranked fifth in special teams efficiency in 2010, 28th in 2012, and first in 2013. The Tide ranked 73rd in 2011 and 88th in 2014.

Special teams are a small-sample exercise that can provide misleading stats, but basically everything but punting was mediocre at best last year. Christion Jones' returns were minuscule compared to what he had previously produced, and Adam Griffth's kickoffs and place kicks left something to be desired.

There's plenty of experience, and JK Scott is a magnificent punter -- he averaged nearly 50 yards per boot, and only 12 of his 55 punts were actually returned. I assume the Tide improve, but until the kicks get under control, I don't see this being another top-30 unit.

2015 Schedule & Projection Factors

2015 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk
5-Sep vs. Wisconsin 25
12-Sep Middle Tennessee 87
19-Sep Ole Miss 6
26-Sep UL-Monroe 102
3-Oct at Georgia 3
10-Oct Arkansas 12
17-Oct at Texas A&M 22
24-Oct Tennessee 20
7-Nov LSU 8
14-Nov at Mississippi State 21
21-Nov Charleston Southern NR
28-Nov at Auburn 5
Five-Year F/+ Rk 62.7% (1)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 1 / 1
2014 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -2 / 7.2
2014 TO Luck/Game -3.3
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 11 (4, 7)
2014 Second-order wins (difference) 12.3 (-0.3)

10. Earning it on the road

Alabama only officially returns 11 starters, but the Tide boast plenty of experience, and a few of the new starters got plenty of reps. Alabama will have Henry and a pretty experienced line on offense, a loaded front seven, and juniors and seniors in the secondary. The passing game might feature green pieces, but the Tide will be seasoned overall.

Experience and a strong defense should make Alabama a solid road team, and that's good. What might be the two toughest opponents on the schedule -- Georgia and Auburn -- play host. In fact, all five trips from Tuscaloosa (including the neutral-site season opener against Wisconsin) take place against projected top-25 teams. The odds of Alabama losing once are high.

But you're allowed one loss in the road to the College Football Playoff. Can an inexperienced quarterback and unproven receivers leave Athens, Auburn, etc., with just one loss? That's where the bar is for Bama. You can go 11-1, but 10-2 is a failure.

According to the F/+ ratings, Alabama has been the second-best team in football four times in five years. We can pretend that this is a crisis, and we can look elsewhere for SEC favorites if we are feeling creative. But even with change, the Tide are the safest bet in 2015 outside of Columbus. And even Ohio State has to prove itself a few more years in a row to match what Saban has done.