SQ College Football Top-25 Preview: #2 Alabama

The college football staff at SQ have created rankings of the top-25 teams heading into the 2015 season. To prepare our readers for this upcoming season, we are previewing each team. Today’s focus: #2 Alabama.

Team: Alabama

SQ Ranking: 2

2014 Record: 12-2

Finish in AP Poll: 3

Head Coach: Nick Saban (9th year)

Key Arrivals: WR Calvin Ridley, CB Kendall Sheffield, DT Daron Payne, RB Damien Harris

Key Departures: QB Blake Sims, WR Amari Cooper, S Landon Collins, RB T.J. Yeldon, LB Xzavier Dickson  

Previewing the Alabama offense: Losing Amari Cooper is a big blow for the Crimson Tide. The electrifying playmaker was second in the nation in receiving yards (1,727), first in receptions (124), and second in receiving touchdowns (16) in 2014. He won the Fred Biletnikoff Award as college football's top receiver and was taken by the Oakland Raiders as the fourth overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft. Who replaces him as Alabama's primary receiving threat? That answer will not come easy. Including Cooper, three of Alabama's top receivers have moved on to the NFL. ArDarius Stewart is projected to be a top receiving threat for the Crimson Tide in 2015. The true talent that he possesses has yet to be seen. He has never had 100+ receiving yards in a college game. Nick Saban, however, has a lot of faith in him. 

"He's probably been our most consistent guy out there in terms of ability to execute," Saban said earlier in August. "He's making plays every day. I think his confidence is growing, and I think he's the next guy that we need to sort of be the man when it comes to playing receiver and playing with consistency."

Who will throw the ball? As of right now, Saban has yet to decide who his number one signal-caller will be. Whoever it will be will be protected by an offensive line that is projected to be one of the best in the nation. FWAA Freshman All-American left tackle Cam Robinson is a returning starter and so is center Ryan Kelly. Three starters from the line, however, are gone so line coach Mario Cristobal will have his work cut out for him. 

The one position on this Crimson Tide offense that is not an uncertainty is the running back position. Other than 2014, Alabama has been a mostly run-heavy offensive team under Nick Saban. In fact, 2014 was the first time since 2010 that Alabama did not have a 1,000-yard rusher. That could change in 2015. Derrick Henry led the team in rushing yards in 2014 (990) despite having 22 fewer carries than leading carrier T.J. Yeldon (172). He rushed for 100+ yards in 2014 three times and tied with Yeldon for the most rushing touchdowns on the team with 11. With the uncertainty at the quarterback position, the departure of Yeldon, and Henry being the unit's only proven offensive threat, look for Henry to break 1,000 rushing yards this season for the first time in his college career and carry the team to another dominant season. 

The x-factor to look out for is RB Kenyan Drake. His 2014 season was cut short as he suffered a devastating leg injury. The year before that, he had 694 rushing yards eight rushing touchdowns. If he's healthy, he could be another very reliable running option for the Crimson Tide in 2015.

Previewing the Alabama defense: Alabama's defense has always been a very strong unit under Saban and that should be the case in 2015. They have an absolutely loaded front seven spearheaded by LB Reggie Ragland who led the front seven members in tackles in 2014 (93) and DT A'Shawn Robinson who had three passes broken up and four QB hurries. The unit contributed greatly to Alabama's fourth-ranked rushing defense in 2014. Alabama has been below the top ten in rushing defense only once since Nick Saban became the team's coach and that was during his first year with them. Look for them to be a top ten rushing defensive unit for the eighth straight year. 

The secondary, unlike the front seven, is a concern for Alabama's defense. In 2014, Alabama ranked 82nd in the nation in passing defense, 43rd in passing touchdowns allowed, and 31st in opposing quarterback rating. The secondary allowed over 220 passing yards per game, the first time since 2007 that they allowed 200+ passing yards per game. 

Nick Saban brought in Mel Tucker to be the team's new secondary coach. Tucker spent the last 10 years in the NFL. He has returning starter Cyrus Jones and former five-star CB prospects Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey to work with. He has holes to fill at the safety position which lost both Landon Collins and Nick Perry. 

The one bright spot on the team's secondary was that it contributed to Alabama having the SEC's fifth most passes defended in 2014 (50).

The x-factor to look out for is DE Jonathan Allen who was second on the team in sacks in 2014 with six. 2014 sack leader Xzavier Dickson is gone so look for Allen to possibly lead his team in that category. 

Three Key Games:

1. Alabama vs. Wisconsin, September 5th: Alabama begins its 2015 season against a ranked opponent, #20 Wisconsin. Although 2014 leading rusher Melvin Gordon is gone, Wisconsin has another player that is very capable of being its next great running back. Corey Clement was the team's second leading rusher in 2014 with 949 rushing yards and nine rushing touchdowns. He had four 100+ rushing yard games, all of them coming against bowl teams. Alabama is all too familiar with Big Ten running backs shredding their front seven so they need to be extra prepared for Clement.

2. Alabama at Georgia, October 3rd: Georgia, who is heavily favored to win the SEC East, is always in the title talk. Head coach Mark Richt has already decided that Greyson Lambert will be his starting quarterback but that really shouldn't matter as stud running back Nick Chubb is likely to get a lot of touches this season. In addition, Georgia is loaded at the linebacker position and has arguably the best offensive line in college football. Alabama has arguably the best defensive line in college football. This could be a very intriguing matchup. 

3. Alabama at Auburn, November 28th: Ah yes. The Iron Bowl. No matter what team you root for, this one is always a classic to look forward to. From high scoring games to endings that make you jump out of your seat in awe, this game is sure to provide college football fans with lots of excitement and entertainment. Auburn enters this season with a lot of hype and title aspirations. If any team is capable of ruining their chances of a title run, it's Alabama. It will not come as an easy task, however. Considering that Alabama struggled against the pass last season and Auburn QB Jeremy Johnson is likely to be one of the nation's best passers, the Crimson Tide have their hands full.

Final Analysis: Even though Amari Cooper is gone, the quarterback position is at an uncertainty, and the secondary remains to be a concern for Alabama, I still think this team is loaded and deep enough to contend for a national titl e. Never, ever count out a Nick Saban-coached squad. Considering that last year was a "rebuilding" year for them and they made it all the way to the national semifinals, there's always reason for hope when it comes to Alabama football. My prediction: Alabama goes 11-1 in the regular season, the one loss coming against Auburn who is my pick to win it all. Will that still be enough for a playoff invite? We shall see. 

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