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Alabama Crimson Tide preview

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Can Nick Saban keep the Tide contending for a national title? Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Most programs would kill for one national title a decade, much less three. But when you’re the Crimson Tide and coached by the venerable Nick Saban, going two seasons without one must feel like an eternity. With a new QB, a void at WR and a once-machine-like D in need of fixing, a return to glory is a long climb.

Offense

How the Tide beat you: In one season, Lane Kiffin changed everything. He took an offense that evoked three yards and a cloud of dust and turned it into a monster truck rally. The Tide attacked from all angles, dumping the huddle in favor of the hurry-up and in turn creating the most plays of 20-plus yards (81) in the Saban era. Of course, the personnel mostly responsible for the turnaround—QB Blake Sims (3,487 pass yards, No. 2 in the SEC; 28 TDs, No. 1) and WR Amari Cooper (124 catches, No. 1 in the FBS; 1,727 yards, No. 2)—must be replaced by a journeyman backup (Jake Coker) and a WR committee (ArDarius Stewart, Robert Foster and Chris Black) that had 33 catches. But Saban says it’s no different from a year ago, when Kiffin took Sims, a four-year backup, and engineered the SEC’s second-best offense (36.9 ppg).

How you beat the Tide: Things get dicey when Kiffin becomes one-dimensional. In the Sugar Bowl loss to Ohio State, Sims had his second-most pass attempts (36). In a 14-13 win over Arkansas, Alabama was held to a season-low 66 rushing yards. In fact, since Saban arrived in ’07, when Bama throws for 300-plus yards, its winning percentage actually drops 9.2 points. If it doesn’t reach 100 yards rushing, the rate plummets from 88.7 percent to 45.5.

Defense

How the Tide beat you: Beating Bama at the point of attack is like trying to push back, well, the tide. Since ’09, no team in the FBS has allowed fewer rushing yards (90.7 ypg). Last season the Tide gave up 102.4 rushing ypg (No. 4 in the FBS) and had a red zone efficiency of 38.6 percent (No. 2) while holding opponents to 18.4 ppg (No. 6). D-linemen A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed (13 TFL combined in ’14) both should play on Sundays. On the outside, DE Jonathan Allen is the top TFL returner (11), and LB Reggie Ragland, the top returning tackler and himself a likely pro, says to keep an eye on under-the-radar junior LB Tim Williams. “He can lead the country in sacks,” Ragland says. “That’s how fast and physical he is.”

How you beat the Tide: Run an up-tempo offense, incorporate a mobile QB and you’ve got a puncher’s chance. Just look at Nick Marshall, Johnny Manziel and Cardale Jones, who each led a hurry-up to the first- (630), second- (628) and third-most (537) yards allowed, respectively, by a Saban-coached Bama defense. But the biggest issue of late hasn’t been wrangling a fleet-footed QB, it’s been clamping down on the deep ball. In ’14, the Tide gave up 43 passes of 20-plus yards, the most in at least a decade and a far cry from 2011, when they led the FBS with just 15. —A.S.