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Alabama Is Still The SEC West Favorite, Don't Buy The Narrative

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Alabama’s 2013 season took an Icarus-like tumble. The Tide were BCS Title favorites through late November. They then went cold late against Auburn, lost the SEC title and were dumped by a buoyant Bob Stoops team in a bowl game. Their narrative, entering 2014, is “starting all over.” But that may be overstating things to abet their own vigilance. Nick Saban has done and is doing a lot of things right.

First, some perspective. Alabama lost the Iron Bowl last year. But there is zero ground to make up on Auburn. The Tigers, even playing well late in the season, were fortunate, going 6-0 in one-score regular season games. This fluke touchdown won the game against Georgia. This fluke touchdown decided a tie game against Alabama. The Tigers won. But ordering the SEC West by average victory margin per game in 2013 conference play tells a different story.

Alabama (+23.5)
Auburn (+7.88)
LSU (+7.38)
Texas A&M (+1.88)
Ole Miss (-5)
Mississippi State (-7.25)
Arkansas (-21)

Auburn needed the right stuff at multiple crucial moments. Alabama, the clear dominant team in the division, was a double-digit favorite heading into the Iron Bowl for a reason.

College football success is not nomological. But, barring major fluctuations (coach plus blonde plus motorcycle accident), teams tend to perform consistently year to year. Past success can be a strong indicator of future success. I used a prorated SRS formula using Sports Reference’s data – 2013 (x 1), 2012 (x 0.75), 2011 (x 0.5), 2010 (0.25) – to set a baseline for 2014 projections. Not surprisingly, Alabama distances itself from the rest of the Division.

Alabama (58.33)
LSU (45.31)
Texas A&M (40.91)
Auburn (28.23)
Mississippi State (20.23)
Ole Miss (16.03)
Arkansas (14.12)

To pick against Nick Saban, on a rational basis, we need to believe (A) Alabama will decline from a strong trend of kicking ass and (B) another team will rise up enough to pass them. We’ll deal with (A) first.

Starters returning bodes well. Losing talented players does not. Alabama sees three probable first-round draft picks – Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (S), Cyrus Kouandjio (LT) and C.J. Mosley (LB) – depart. Add in quarterback A.J. McCarron who, whatever you make of him, ended up 8th nationally in passer rating and 10th in yards/attempt vs. FBS teams in 2013. Also throw in a smattering of later round picks who will end up on NFL rosters. That’s a lot to replace. But Alabama does that every year. The team lost three of the Top 11 picks in 2013 and had five players chosen in the Top 35 in 2012.

The hardest hit unit this past season was Alabama’s offensive line. The Tide lost Chance Warmack (No. 10 overall), D.J. Fluker (No. 11 overall) and Barrett Jones (two-time Consensus All-American). That unit looked like a “liability” last Spring and Summer. How did Alabama fare in 2013? Better. Significantly better.  Just looking at SEC play, the line improved from 1.44 to 0.50 sacks allowed and from 5.56 to 6.39 yards/carry.

USATSI_6691960_153192880_lowresAlabama needs to find a starting quarterback. But, this is Alabama. There are options. Blake Sims, a fifth-year senior, has gotten the most reps in Spring Ball. Jacob Coker, who legitimately battled Jameis Winston for the starting job at FSU, arrives in the fall. Cooper Bateman, one of the top QB recruits of the 2013 class, and David Cornwell, one of the top QB recruits of the 2014 class are also on campus. The eventual choice will be working with what should be a very good offensive line, a very good receiving corps and an absolutely disgusting amount of talent at running back. Nick Saban has won and won national titles with a JAG at quarterback.

Defense? Alabama may have the best and deepest defensive line in the country. They are stacked at linebacker, despite losing Mosley. Landon Collins may end up being a better player at safety than either Clinton-Dix or Sunseri. Both offensive units went scoreless in the first half at Alabama’s spring game. The biggest concern is at corner. Though the conference’s attrition at quarterback should help them there. The most accomplished returning passer on Alabama’s 2014 schedule looks to be Bo Wallace.

Alabama just regenerates. Credit the best player development environment money can buy (and shrewd over-signing). Presuming things don’t go all “Florida” at quarterback, Alabama should be a double-digit favorite in nearly every game it plays.

Is there a team in the SEC West that can make the leap forward and surpass them? LSU has a lot of talent, and potentially a true freshman at quarterback. Texas A&M loses three-first round picks in Johnny Manziel, Mike Evans and Jake Matthews, from a team that won eight regular season games. We’ll buy Ole Miss’ recruiting hype when we see it on the field. A “leap forward” for Dan Mullen would be back to nine wins. The one real contender is Auburn.

The Tigers return most of their offense from 2013, which Gus Malzahn improved from 90th to 8th in yards/play. But the losses are significant. Auburn loses Heisman finalist Tre Mason and offensive tackle Greg Robinson, a probable top-five pick. They also lose half their defense, including probable first-round pick Dee Ford, and his 10.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss. Any decline from ranking near the top of the country in third-down and red-zone defense could be a major issue for them. We don’t like reading too much into Spring Day, but the first-team offense putting up 44 points, in one half, suggests there’s work to be done.

Auburn can compete with Alabama. But they remain a few years of recruiting away from competing with them for depth. Picking them is placing faith that Gus Malzahn’s wizardry will overcome a number of apparent deficiencies. Everything could go right for them again. It could also go the way it did for Michigan State in 2012.

There is one enduring lesson from Alabama’s 2013 season. It’s really hard to win a national title. Some years, you can do just about everything right, and still watch it crumble. You get in position, and you hope. Alabama has been right there five of the past six years. Doubting them would be premature.

[Photos via USA Today Sports]

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