Southeastern Conference football is two months away, and although the SEC had its streak of consecutive national titles snapped by Ohio State last season, there’s plenty to be excited about for 2015. Chris Lee starts his series of conference previews with a look at Alabama and Arkansas.
Alabama looks to challenge for national title, again
It’s safe to say a fan base is spoiled when anything short of a national title qualifies as a disappointment. That pretty well sums up the situation for Alabama last year. The Crimson Tide were the top seed for last year’s College Football Playoff before being unceremoniously smacked by Ohio State, thus denying ‘Bama a shot at what could have been coach Nick Saban’s fourth national title in six years.
The biggest problem for the Crimson Tide coming into 2015 is this: ‘Bama lost eight starters on offense, including one of the best receivers in college football history in Amari Cooper and underrated quarterback Blake Sims, plus four more on defense, including All-American safety Landon Collins. Of course, Saban doesn’t re-build a program, he re-loads: four of the five classes of players making up the 2015 team ranked No. 1 in the country as recruits according to Rivals.com, the only exception being the 2015 class which was ranked second.
So, here’s where things stand on offense: All-American candidate Derrick Henry figures to be the block around which the offense will build, and after he averaged 5.8 yards per carry in ’14, that’s not a concern. The bigger issues: cohesiveness on the offensive line (three departed starters), finding a quarterback (Florida State transfer Jacob Coker figures to be the guy, but we said that last year, too) and someone to throw to (the top four receivers are gone, though underclassmen Chris Black and Robert Foster are plenty talented and freshman Calvin Ridley may be the best in his class).
Of course, the tandem of Saban and coordinator Kirby Smart are second to none when it comes to building defenses. Get this: when Alabama gave up 18.3 points per game last season, it was the first time the ‘Tide had yielded more than 14.3 points per game since 2008! As always, the front seven, anchored by All-American tackle A’Shawn Robinson, will be huge and physical. Things are less certain in the secondary, but there’s plenty of depth.
The bottom line is this: we may not know exactly who the emerging stars for ‘Bama will be in 2015, but never bet against a combination of talent and the coaching of Saban, who’s arguably the greatest the college game has ever seen. The biggest challenge may be a brutal schedule that includes nine potential Top 25 squads.
Bielema hopes to build on 2014’s close
Arkansas was more or less the consensus pick to finish at the bottom of the SEC West last year. Given the incredible strength of the other six teams, plus the fact that UA had gone winless in conference play in 2013, that was understandable. The Razorbacks still finished last, but didn’t play like a last-place team in the latter part of the season, as LSU and Ole Miss found out when UA shut them out in back-to-back games.
Those shutouts were one of the biggest shockers of the college football season; after all, Arkansas allowed 30.8 points per game in 2013. The problem now is that four starters on the front seven were drafted by the NFL, so expect a drop-off there. However, if defensive lineman Taiwan Johnson and some other youngsters continue to improve, the Razorbacks can be okay since there’s plenty of returning talent in the secondary.
Offensively, the Razorbacks could be explosive. All five starters return from one of the country’s biggest and most outstanding offensive lines, plus, the Razorbacks have a rarity of two returning running backs in Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins who each gained over 1,100 yards last year. The question here is perhaps quarterback, but senior Brandon Allen is in his third year as a starter and after an injury-filled 2013, he tossed 20 touchdowns against just five picks last year when he was healthier. It helps to have a first-team preseason All-American in tight end Hunter Henry, too.
The biggest problem for Arkansas will again be the division in which it plays. The West is loaded again, and the schedule-makers did UA no breaks in giving it Tennessee and Missouri as its Eastern Division opponents. There’s also the fact that Arkansas hasn’t won on the road in the SEC since 2012. But coach Bret Bielema is now in his third year of molding the program to his system, and with him able to institute the same kind of rushing attack that he did at Wisconsin, it’s not out of the question that Arkansas could contend in the West.