Preseason magazines like Alabama
A three-year starting quarterback is gone. Two All-Americans and first-round NFL draft picks on defense must be replaced. Two key multi-year experienced starters on the offensive line? They're gone too.
All of that must be accounted for and factored into any study of the University of Alabama's 2014 football team.
But even after considering those facts, an array of preseason magazines expect the Crimson Tide to not miss much of a beat and be there at the end of the season competing for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Of a total of four college football preseason magazines surveyed, Athlon, Phil Steele, Sporting News and USA Today, none had Alabama ranked lower than No. 4.
While AJ McCarron, C.J. Mosley, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Cyrus Kouandjio and Anthony Steen are no longer around, Nick Saban is, and his sustained run of excellence has earned the benefit of the doubt from those predicting another stellar UA season.
"I like the coaching staff," Sporting News college football writer Matt Hayes said. "I think that the most underrated part of coaching staffs in general is how they develop players. Anybody can recruit players to a university. Anybody can recruit elite players. It's how they're developed. I think Nick and his staff have proven time and time again that they can develop guys and get them ready to play."
The biggest questions marks, according to the magazines, are obvious to Crimson Tide fans: concerns at quarterback, on the offensive line and in the secondary.
To that end, it's not a bad time to be breaking in a new starting quarterback, considering the hiring of new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.
"The addition of Lane is critical," Hayes said. "Lane has been very good with quarterbacks. He knows the position. He knows how to teach it. He's a terrific play caller. If Jacob Coker is half the player that Jimbo Fisher says he is, Lane is going to put him into position to have success. It's as simple as that."
Hayes is assuming that Coker, the recent transfer from Florida State and Mobile native, ultimately wins the starting job. Senior Blake Sims received the majority of snaps during spring practice and Saban has spoken well of him. There is also redshirt freshman Cooper Bateman to factor into the competition that begins when fall camp opens towards the beginning of August.
Hayes said no matter which quarterback wins the job, and he's picking Coker, he doesn't need to do anymore than the previous three starters did under Saban.
"I think Jacob has to do exactly what John Parker Wilson did, exactly what (Greg) McElroy did, exactly what AJ McCarron did," Hayes said. "People say managing a game, but with Nick, managing the game is not a bad thing. He wants a guy who is smart when he comes to the line of scrimmage and says, 'We're in the wrong play. I have to get us in the right play.' That's a guy who doesn't make poor throws, doesn't make bad decisions and a guy who plays within their system.
"It's down to play calling, it's down to getting in the right play, it's down to having everybody knowing what they're doing in the huddle before the play, it's being a calming force in the huddle. That's what AJ was so good at. I think that's what they need from Jacob. They need a guy when all hell is breaking loose on the road in the SEC, he has to be a guy that looks at everybody and says, 'We're all right. We're good.'"
All four magazines predicted Alabama to finish first in the Southeastern Conference West with Auburn a close No. 2. Considering the personnel Auburn returns and with coach Gus Malzahn being in his second season, that may surprise some.
"I just think Auburn's schedule is just brutal. It's just brutal," Hayes said. "I love what Gus did, but when you look at that team did last year they were a couple of plays away from a completely different season. I think Auburn has to at some point, that schedule is going to trip them up. And I think the game in Tuscaloosa is going to be a tough, tough game for them. Everyone keeps saying, 'They have the better quarterback. Gus knows how to beat Alabama.' You can say that all you want. Going into Tuscaloosa and winning is a completely different thing."
Reach Aaron Suttles at email@example.com or at 205-722-0229.