Why Alabama will or won't make the playoff in 2015
Alabama won national championships Year 3, Year 5 and Year 6 of Nick Saban’s tenure. If the team gets through Year 9 without another, a portion of the fan base is going to call the team a failure.
Think that’s overestimating the zealous Tide fans? You probably haven’t heard Saban tell the story of the older couple he encountered at the lake this summer.
The media voted Saban’s team as the SEC West favorites for 2015 (and then picked Auburn to win the SEC — try to figure that one out). But whereas Bama opened the 2011 and 2012 seasons as a strong SEC favorite, ranked No. 2 in the Associated Press preseason Top 25, there are polarizing opinions about the direction of this year’s team.
So which will it be? Will Alabama celebrate a return to the College Football Playoff after the 2015 season? Or will the Tide be forced to play in a disappointing bowl game?
THE CASE FOR ALABAMA
Saban and his coaching staff are the highest-paid or just below the highest-paid in college football at nearly every position. The team also holds five consecutive mythical recruiting national championships, according to the 247Sports composite team rankings.
In other words, Alabama can make an argument that it holds the most talented roster as well as the country’s best coaching staff. That’s a strong recipe.
Here are a few other reasons that the Tide could make the College Football Playoff again in 2015:
- The team’s defensive line could be the best in the nation, with returning All-SEC defensive end Jonathan Allen, preseason All-American candidate defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson and future NFL draft pick defensive end Jarran Reed. That’s not to mention several capable backups.
- The linebackers, headlined by Reggie Ragland, should improve from last season, featuring more sideline-to-sideline speed.
- Together, that front seven has a chance to be as good as any in the SEC. The defensive backs feature a new coach, straight from the Chicago Bears, as well as — not one, not two, not three, but four different underclassmen five-star cornerbacks.
- Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin returns for his second season. In the first, he took a fifth-year backup quarterback who sometimes moonlighted as a running back and turned him into the SEC’s second-most prolific passer (3,487 passing yards for Blake Sims in 2014).
- Is there a better left tackle/center/running back combination in college football than Cam Robinson/Ryan Kelly/Derrick Henry?
- There aren’t many opposing head coaches, even in the treacherous SEC West, that should scare Saban and the Tide. Historically, Les Miles is Saban’s toughest coaching rival in the SEC. Miles is 3-6 against Saban. All three wins came in one-possession games, with the last Tigers victory in 2011.
- Urban Meyer (2-2) and Gus Malzahn (1-1) also are .500 against Saban, but Alabama wouldn’t face Ohio State until the playoff.
- Sophomore JK Scott could be the nation’s best punter.
THE CASE AGAINST ALABAMA
As many as six SEC West teams could make the preseason Top 25, and the seventh, Mississippi State, features an All-SEC player and a potential Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback.
The Tide has gone from the clear-cut dominant team to a very good team somewhere at or near the top of a fierce pile. Heavy SEC East favorite Georgia also will have something to say.
Alabama must first make it to Atlanta by winning the SEC West, and then take on what could be the most challenging East Division winner since UGA in ’12. That could be too much to ask of a team with some major questions.
- The schedule is brutal, especially away from Bryant-Denny Stadium. In addition to a neutral-site game against Wisconsin, the Tide go on the road to face Georgia, Auburn, Texas A&M and Mississippi State.
- Speaking of Auburn, the Tigers have hired Will Muschamp to clean up the defense. That team looks intimidating this preseason, as Jeremy Johnson could be the program’s best quarterback since Cam Newton.
- Who will play quarterback for Alabama? Jake Coker is one month away from the conclusion of a second consecutive quarterback battle and has yet to earn the job. David Cornwell has never taken a college snap. To assume either one of those players can approximate Blake Sims is to court a potential letdown.
- Even with potential All-SEC returners in Robinson and Kelly, replacing three members of the offensive line, and doing so seamlessly on a national championship-caliber team, never is easy.
- Amari Cooper, arguably the greatest receiver in Alabama history, is gone. T.J. Yeldon, a very respectable, NFL-worthy running back, as well as the team’s No. 2 and No. 3 receiving options and terrific fullback Jalston Fowler? Ditto.
- The team’s top three safeties also are gone. On a secondary that got torched far too often in 2014 and frankly hasn’t played to its talent level since ’12.
- Back-to-back SEC champions are almost non-existent. And with the potential for so many top-end teams in other conferences, the chances of getting two representatives into the playoff seem low.
Alabama has a good chance to win the SEC West, although that’s far from a given in 2015. The team probably must win several close games and finish at least 1-1 on the road against potential top 10 opponents Auburn and Georgia.
But it’s been a while since Saban could legitimately play the “nobody believes in us” motivator with his players. The talent remains as good as any SEC team. If the Tide are underdogs, it only will be in one or two regular-season games.
Alabama’s chances of making the College Football Playoff in back-to-back years clearly are less than 50 percent. But it would surprise almost no one if the Tide were one of the country’s last four teams standing.